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Saturday, March 1, 2008 - Page updated at 09:35 AM

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Liquor tax defeat lays groundwork for I-960 challenge

Associated Press Writer

Senate Democrats have laid the groundwork for a lawsuit against a tax-limiting initiative, with the majority leader considering the unusual step of filing her own lawsuit in hopes of making it easier for lawmakers to raise taxes.

Friday's legal maneuver, coming in the 2008 session's waning days, is an unusually strong sign that lawmakers have grown tired of initiative promoter Tim Eyman's forays into limiting the Legislature's power.

The groundwork was laid when the Senate began debate on a proposed $10 million liquor increase that would pay for drunken driving enforcement and substance abuse treatment.

The bill would have required approval from two-thirds of the Senate, because of last year's Initiative 960, an Eyman-sponsored measure that reaffirmed higher vote thresholds for tax hikes.

Eyman opponents, including legislators, believe I-960 is illegal because it conflicts with the state constitution's provision that the Legislature can pass bills with a simple majority. The initiative shouldn't be allowed to alter that requirement, the argument goes, because it wasn't a constitutional amendment.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, asked Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, the Senate's presiding officer, to rule I-960 unconstitutional for the purposes of the pending tax vote.

"A two-thirds requirement to pass certain types of bills, in my opinion, is antidemocratic and violates the Washington constitution," Brown said. "The constitution is difficult to change, and it should be. It should remain superior to the statutes we pass."

Owen, himself a Democrat and former state senator, returned after a huddle with lawyers and said it was up to the courts to decide the constitutionality of I-960. He also ruled that the proposed tax increase did meet the thresholds in I-960, and would require a two-thirds vote.

The tax increase then got a simple majority vote of 25-21, but was defeated because supporters couldn't get the 33 votes needed to pass it under I-960.

"I believe the only way we can resolve this is in the courts," Brown said after the vote. "The potential conflict between the constitution and the initiative is illustrated by what happened."

Brown later indicated that Senate Democrats would be the ones to file the lawsuit. The fact that Brown asked for a legal ruling on the Senate floor is a legal maneuver that could give her the proper standing to bring a lawsuit against the initiative.

Eyman reacted with glee that I-960 had been upheld, but said the move to challenge I-960 foreshadows attempts to raise taxes in the future.

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"This was a preview of things to come," Eyman said. "There's going to be a lot of efforts to push for higher taxes next year."

Senate GOP budget leader Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, challenged Brown's assertion that the two-thirds requirement was undemocratic.

"The people clearly supported it. This is what they wanted," Zarelli said. "Do we honor the democratic process, or do we get to pick and choose?"

___

Associated Press Writers Manuel Valdes and Curt Woodward contributed to this report from Olympia.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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