Republican coalition turns up its nose at Supreme Court ruling
by John Stang
The state Supreme Court is trying to compel lawmakers to comply with its 2012 McCleary mandate to fully fund education. Credit: Cacophony/Wikimedia Commons
Updated: 1:26 pm Thursday
The Republican-oriented majority in the Washington Senate says it has a plan to keep tax hikes on supermajority lockdown — despite Thursday's Supreme Court ruling nullifying the law that would have required a 2/3rds majority vote on new taxes.
Coalition leaders, who control which bills are brought to a full Senate vote, say they won't allow any tax bills to go to a floor vote of the Senate. The only exception would be when votes are counted in advance, and two-thirds say they will support a tax.
"We control the floor calendar. We won't let [a tax bill] come up for a vote unless the two-thirds are there," said Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina and leader of the 23-Republican-two-Democrat majority coalition.
Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, who is also president of the Senate and arbiter of rules disputes, said he would have to check with his legal advisors about Tom's plan. He said he would not seek such advice until that situation actually happens — which is the traditional protocol.
"They [the majority coalition] would have to show me that does not violate the court's ruling. …You can't pass a rule to supercede a Supreme Court decision," Owen said.
When Tom and Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, switched to the Republican side of the Senate, they gave the GOP control of the Senate Rules Committee, which dictates which bills will be sent for a full Senate vote. The alliance also controls the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which dictates which budget bills will receive hearings and which will get votes to move on to the rules committee.
Tom plans to formally install that two-thirds rule to govern the Senate, saying that only a simple majority — 25 votes — is needed to enact that requirement. "The rules of the Senate are the rules," Tom said Thursday morning.
When asked if the proposed Senate rule violates Thursday's Supreme Court ruling, Tom replied that the court has no jurisdiction over the Senate's internal rulemaking because of the separation of powers. "They're a judicial body and we're a legislative body," he said.
On Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court issued its 6-3 ruling that requiring a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and House to raise taxes is unconstitutional.
This would allow Democrats to raise taxes with a simple majority, at least in the House where that party dominates. The 24-member Democratic minority would have to swing one vote from the 23-Republican-two-Democrat anti-tax majority to pass a tax in that chamber. That is if the majority alliance does not impose its proposed two-thirds rule for a tax bill to reach the floor.
Republicans have used the two-thirds rule — required by four public initiatives — to stop Democratic attempts to raise taxes or close tax loopholes.
"Two-thirds is about impossible to get. This makes it more possible to get an agreement [with Republicans on budget issues]," said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.
The decision is likely to set off sharp political fighting and calls for a constitutional amendment for two-thirds approval, which has been repeatedly passed by voters on Tim Eyman-sponsored ballot measures.
"I totally consider this a victory for my son, who is 12 years-old and in middle school," said Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma. Jinkins' voice quivered as her eyes teared up. "Everything is about kids. I can work myself into a frenzy about this."
Jinkins is one of the architects — along with Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, and Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle — of legislative maneuvers to send the 2/3rds rule to the Supreme Court.
The rule has been an obstacle to Democrats trying to figure out how to raise roughly $1 billion in extra expenses to improve education as mandated by an early 2012 Supreme Court ruling.
Sens. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake — all Senate committee chairpersons supporting the supermajority rule — held a joint press conference with the Association of Washington Business, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Washington Farm Bureau to criticize the ruling.
"We're very disappointed in the actions of the Supreme Court," said Amber Carter, a lobbyist for the AWB.
Roach said: "The flood waters have been really let loose on taxes because of the Supreme Court's decision."
Democratic leaders though do not see a flood of tax bills bursting forth. Sullivan and Hunter said Democrats are leery of tax hikes, but that the option is needed as a potential means of balancing the budget. Deal-making with the Republican-oriented Senate, the two men said, is the only way to get a balanced budget for Gov. Jay Inslee to sign.
"This rectifies the balance of the decision-making," said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
It is difficult to predict how Inslee would react if the Senate and House agree on a budget that includes tax increases.
He has promised not to raise taxes, but wants to close tax exemptions and supports keeping existing taxes from expiring. He did not like a proposal by Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, to take a capital gains tax package to the voters in November.
In a written statement, Inslee praised the Supreme Court's ruling. "The supermajority requirements gave a legislative minority the power to squelch ideas even when those ideas have majority support. That is inconsistent with our fundamental form of representative democracy."
The 2010 legislative session — the only recent session in which the two-thirds majority was not in effect — is a clue of how the House and Senate would behave if only a simple majority is needed to raise taxes. No broad tax increases were instituted in 2010, but the Legislature did add taxes to beer (28 cents per six-pack), soda (2 cents on 12 ounces), candy, bottled water, some service businesses and some banks and credit card firms. That same year, the American Beverage Association spent roughly $16 million to successfully convince voters in a public referendum to repeal the soda and candy tax increases.
The struggle over the 2/3rds majority began back in 2007 when Eyman put I-960 — requiring two-thirds majorities in both chambers — on the ballot, and voters passed it. in 2008, Democratic senators got a vote for a liquor tax from a narrow majority, but short of the two-thirds threshold, in order to legally challenge I-960. But in 2009, the state Supreme Court declared that the matter was an internal legislative dispute and declined to hear arguments on the issue.
Then in 2010, the Legislature repealed I-960 because it has the power to nullify initiatives two years after they pass. But Eyman anticipated that action, and got I-1053 — also calling for a two-thirds majorty to increase taxes — on the ballot in 2010. And voters approved I-1053.