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Originally published Monday, July 25, 2011 at 10:25 AM

Suit targets Eyman tax initiative's two-thirds vote requirement

A group of Democratic state lawmakers and education groups is suing the state Monday to overturn the requirement that two-thirds of the Legislature approve tax increases.

Seattle Times political reporter

quotes Plaintiffs in the case include a dozen Democratic state lawmakers... Thanks for... Read more
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Two statewide education groups and a dozen Democratic state lawmakers sued the state Monday, seeking to overturn the voter-approved requirement that two-thirds of the Legislature approve tax increases.

The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, argues the supermajority requirement unconstitutionally prevents lawmakers from adequately funding schools and other essential public services.

Targeted by the lawsuit is Initiative 1053, the latest of four voter-approved measures since 1993 that have limited the Legislature's ability to raise taxes: I-1053 requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate. Sponsored by Tim Eyman, I-1053 was approved by 64 percent of voters in 2010.

Similar legal challenges have failed three times previously — but for essentially procedural reasons, with courts ruling the plaintiffs lacked sufficient standing to make their claims. Supporters of the new effort say they've tried to deal with those objections this time around and hope they can get the state Supreme Court to rule on the constitutional question.

The lawsuit contends the supermajority requirement — though popular — violates the state constitution, which gives the Legislature the authority to pass laws, in most cases, by a simple majority vote.

Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, one of the lawsuit plaintiffs, said the case isn't about preparing the way for massive general tax increases. But he said the supermajority threshold makes it virtually impossible for lawmakers to close outdated or unfair special-interest tax exemptions that have reduced the money available for schools.

"Unless you can get two-thirds majority in both chambers then it basically means you are stuck with a revenue base that has a one-way ratchet," said Pedersen, referring to the fact that creating new tax breaks only requires a simple majority vote.

For example, the lawsuit points to a vote in the state House this year on a bill that would have eliminated a tax break for out-of-state banks to fund smaller K-3 class sizes. The bill received a majority of yes votes but failed to get the required two-thirds supermajority. Knowing the bill would fail, state House Democrats brought the vote to prepare the way for the legal challenge.

Eyman, the I-1053 sponsor, mocked the lawsuit and predicted it would fail like three previous challenges.

"The courts are not going to look favorably on a bunch of whiny politicians complaining it's not fair that we have to take a hard vote on taxes in order to sidestep an initiative that passed in every legislative district outside of Seattle," Eyman said.

Republicans attacked Democrats for filing the lawsuit, saying it showed they are out of touch with public opinion.

"At a time when so many families and small businesses are adjusting to economic realities and living within their means, House Democrats feel that state government shouldn't have to," said House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, in a statement.

But supporters of the lawsuit said I-1053 needs to be invalidated so the state can live up to its duty to pay for public services, especially schools.

"Washington's constitution makes it clear the state's paramount duty is to 'make ample provision' for the education of every child," said Chris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education Voters, which joined the lawsuit along with the state teachers union, in a statement.

The new lawsuit could stand a better chance than previous efforts, said Hugh Spitzer, affiliate professor of law at the University of Washington and an expert on the state constitution, who helped bring the last challenge in 2008.

"It's possible. It's not surefire," Spitzer said.

If the court does rule on the issue, Spitzer said he has little doubt the two-thirds requirement will be found unconstitutional.

The state constitution imposes supermajority requirements in some cases — requiring a three-fifths vote for selling bonds, for example. But the constitution does not mention such a requirement for raising taxes.

"We live in a democracy, and the basic principle of a democracy is majority rule except in special circumstances," Spitzer said.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.

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