Washington Lt. Gov. Brad Owen got more powerful in court ruling
The Washington Supreme Court might as well have made Lt. Gov. Brad Owen king when it ruled he was well within his authority to accede to voters' wishes in requiring a two-thirds vote of the Senate to raise taxes. The court rejected Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown's argument that the voter initiative's requirement was unconstitutional.
In Brownv.Owen, the Washington Supreme Court didn't put it in those words, but that's how we read them.
Brad Owen is the lieutenant governor — a job seemingly so marginal that reformers often propose to abolish it. But other than as stand-in for the governor when she is out of state, it does have one authority. The lieutenant governor is president of the Washington state Senate and declares when a vote succeeds or fails.
A year ago the Senate voted 25-22 on a bill to increase the tax on liquor. According to Initiative 960, proposed by Tim Eyman and passed by voters, it takes a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature to approve a tax increase. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, noted the state constitution specifies only a majority, and argued that I-960 was unconstitutional. She asked Senate President Owen to declare the bill passed.
Owen refused, saying he didn't have the power to ignore I-960. She sued, asking the state's highest court to declare the rule unconstitutional and order Owen to certify the tax increase as passed.
In a unanimous decision written by Justice Mary Fairhurst, the Court said it was beyond its powers to order Owen to do anything in a matter of the Senate's internal business.
That's heady authority in a year when the lawmakers are talking about raising taxes to help close an $8 billion budget deficit.
So here is the rule: As Senate president, Owen can demand two-thirds. Or he can accept a simple majority. The state's founders may have it written it into the constitution, and more than a century later, the people may have voted on it in a statewide election. No matter.
In the state Senate, it's up to Brad Owen.
Vive le roi.
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