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Originally published Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 8:24 AM

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State House approves I-960 suspension

After two days of heated debate, the state House has approved a temporary suspension of Initiative 960, which voters passed to make it harder for legislators to raise taxes. The state Senate must vote again on the measure before sending it to the governor, who is expected to sign the plan into law.

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — After two days of heated debate spurred by a feisty Republican minority, the state House has approved a temporary suspension of Initiative 960, which voters passed to make it harder for legislators to raise taxes.

Legislative budget writers and Gov. Chris Gregoire want to employ a mix of spending cuts, tax increases and one-time fixes to fill a $2.8 billion deficit, which is the gap between state expenses and expected tax collections through June 2011.

But Initiative 960, approved in 2007, requires two-thirds approval from legislators to raise taxes — a significant hurdle compared with the simple majority needed to pass other measures.

Lawmakers can amend initiatives with a simple majority vote after they've been on the books for two years, making this the first legislative session that Democrats can suspend I-960 with their current majorities.

The I-960 suspension passed the House on a 51-47 vote late Wednesday night, but not before minority Republican legislators exploited their limited powers to extend debate and strongly protest the measure. It now heads to the Senate for further consideration.

In hours of speeches Tuesday and Wednesday, the House GOP argued that amending the initiative would both violate the voters' will and hurt the state's economic recovery by opening the door to tax increases.

"We continue to pile more taxes on," said Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee. "That's why the citizens of Washington state passed this initiative: to get it under control, so that we have to live within our means."

Democrats responded that higher taxes are needed to avoid the most devastating cuts to public services, including financial aid for college students, health care for the working poor and social services for the disabled.

Democrats also point out that legislators from both parties have suspended initiatives over the years to deal with economic emergencies, including mandates for school spending that have passed by wider margins than I-960's 51 percent.

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said a temporary suspension of the initiative "will allow us to consider all options for dealing with the budget situation in a fair and balanced way."

"It's our job to make balanced decisions about budgets and tax policy," he said. "The two-thirds-majority requirement leaves decisions in the hands of a small minority."

The I-960 suspension bill would pause most of the measure's provisions until July 2011, when the next two-year budget cycle begins. One feature of the initiative would continue: public e-mail notifications about proposed tax increases, including 10-year cost projections.

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Debate over the I-960 suspension isn't finished yet. The state Senate must vote again on the measure before sending it to Gregoire, a Democrat who is expected to sign the plan into law.

Democrats say they will unveil their plans for patching the budget deficit once I-960 is suspended. The scheduled 60-day session ends on March 11.

AP writer Rachel La Corte contributed to this report.

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