Live by the two-thirds vote. Die by the two-thirds vote.
That sums up the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus' attempt Wednesday to send the House a proposed change in the Washington Constitution. The bill would have created a November public referendum on whether a two-thirds vote is needed in the Legislature to raise any taxes.
Because it was a proposed constitutional change, the legislation needed two-thirds approval by the 49-member Senate — or 33 votes. Wednesday's tally was 25 votes for and 21 votes against the referendum — far short of the required two-thirds and strictly along caucus lines.
Until a court ruling last year, several voter-passed initiatives required any tax increase or closure of a tax break to get two-thirds of the votes in both the Senate and House. Republicans, who have always controlled more than one-third of each chamber, have routinely used the rule to defeat tax hikes and to keep tax breaks intact. Then last year, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the two-thirds requirement was unconstitutional.
Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, was the prime sponsor of the constitutional amendment to impose the two-third's vote requirement for tax hikes as well closing loopholes. During Wednesday's floor debate and at a follow-up press conference, she pointed to the voting for the 2012 measure which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional. The initiative passed with 64 percent of the votes. Roach had a map and a chart showing voters in 44 out of the state's 49 legislative districts passed I-1185.
Roach's map was color-coded with the pro-I-1185 districts in Seattle Seahawks blue and green. The five anti-I-1185 districts — all in Seattle — were color-coded in Denver Broncos orange. Roach called attention to that color scheme several times. "The Bronco orange is in downtown Seattle. I think that is appropriate," she said.
Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, debated in favor of Roach's measure: "The vote recorded today is not just a vote on this measure, but on whether you trust the citizens of this state to add an item to their Constitution."
"I believe in the wisdom of the people," said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia.
Minority Democrats countered that the Legislature struggled to meet financial requirements when the two-thirds requirement was in effect. They unsuccessfully tried to remove the two-thirds requirements to close tax breaks and to allow majority approval of some fund transfers covered by the supermajority requirement in Roach's bill. The Democratic attempts failed.
Also, Democrats pointed to the need to comply with a 2012 Supreme Court ruling to upgrade education and to restore a frequently suppressed voters initiative to provide cost-of-living increases to teachers.
Democratic Senate budget chief James Hargove of Hoquiam noted that it took two extra special sessions in 2013 to close two tax breaks to balance the state budget — with a simple majority rule in place. He said 17 senators — 12 percent of the entire Legislature — could hold the budget hostage in order to get their pet bills passed. "It's called the rule of 17, a super-minority," said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent.
Lurking on the sidelines is initiative promoter Tim Eyman, who is gathering signatures for his Initiative 1325. It would require the Legislature to hold a referendum on the two-thirds-votes issue by April 15, 2015, and if not, the state sales tax of 6.5 percent would be trimmed by one penny to 5.5 percent. That would remove about $1 billion a year in state revenue.
In fact, there was a strong November election subtext to Wednesday's Senate debate. Braun requested that the debate be preserved on written transcripts. Normally, TVW video is the record for the public to view legislative debates and actions. The approved request for written transcripts as an additional public record means that people on both sides will have a paper document from which to pull the desired quotes in Senate campaign efforts.
At her post-debate press conference, Roach pointed to the 64 percent pro 1-185 vote in 2012. She said, "If people can't follow this, then revenge probably has its place."
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