Voters may make it tougher for Legislature to raise taxes — again
Tim Eyman has another initiative on the November ballot that would require a two-thirds vote in the state House and Senate, or voter approval, to boost taxes. It's the fifth time the question has gone before voters. It's passed every time.
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — Initiative guru Tim Eyman is asking Washington voters to do something they've already done four times before: make it harder for state lawmakers to raise taxes.
Initiative 1185 on the November ballot would reimpose an existing law requiring a two-thirds vote in the state House and Senate, or voter approval, to boost taxes.
The two-thirds restriction was first put in place by voters in 1993 then reimposed in 1998, 2007 and 2010, at least in part because of lawmakers' penchant for suspending the requirement to raise more revenue.
Eyman, who makes a living filing initiatives, sponsored the last two measures and is behind this year's attempt as well.
I-1185 comes at a time when the state budget and the economy are still struggling and the state Supreme Court has mandated increased funding for public schools. Also, a lawsuit challenging the legality of the two-thirds requirement is to be argued this month before the state's highest court.
The business community worries that the state's budget troubles will prompt lawmakers to seek another tax increase.
"The times when people seem to want to increase taxes are the times when you have some of the lowest economic activity. I think that's what we have right now, and a lot of our folks are really struggling," said Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business (AWB).
The AWB has donated $495,000 to help qualify the measure for the ballot. The Washington, D.C.-based Beer Institute, BP Oil and ConocoPhillips contributed an additional $600,000 combined. Business provided most of the funding for Eyman's last two-thirds initiative as well.
Brunell said contributions by oil companies and the Beer Institute are no surprise. "Who gets taxed the most all the time?" he said. "Look at the taxes on beer and wine and hard liquor."
In years past, the Legislature has raised taxes on alcoholic beverages, soda pop and cigarettes, although the soda taxes were later repealed by voters.
And state lawmakers in recent years have talked about imposing taxes on each barrel of oil refined in the state as a way to help pay for transportation projects.
Eyman contends I-1185 is needed because the last two-thirds requirement was approved by voters in 2010. Under state law, it takes a supermajority in the Legislature to change or repeal an initiative the first two years after passage — a near political impossibility.
But after two years have elapsed, only a simple majority vote is required. That's an easier task, and lawmakers in the past have suspended the two-thirds rule to increase taxes.
"Allowing it (the current two-thirds law) to go to the third year is just a guaranteed massive tax increase for taxpayers," Eyman said. "The idea is to give the voters another chance to reinforce this policy for at least another two years."
Critics of the initiative argue the two-thirds requirement allows for minority rule — giving a relatively small group of legislators the ability to block any attempt to boost revenue.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, also says it's unfair because "you can give corporations tax (breaks) by a simple majority but you can't raise revenue to help our school system by a simple majority."
GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna supports Eyman's initiative while his Democratic opponent, Jay Inslee, opposes the measure, saying it's undemocratic.
A No on I-1185 campaign has raised $25,000 in cash, all of it from the Service Employees International Union. Sandeep Kaushik, a spokesman for the no campaign, said it hasn't made plans to run radio or television ads, but that could change.
"It's a tough battle for us, but we're optimistic that we can do much better than people expect," he said.
A July survey by Seattle pollster Stuart Elway showed I-1185 leading with 56 percent in favor and 30 percent opposed.
Opponents of the measure also are closely watching the lawsuit filed last year by a dozen state Democratic lawmakers and two statewide education groups, among others.
The lawsuit argues the two-thirds requirement is unconstitutional. A King County Superior Court judge agreed with them in May, ruling that it "violates the simple majority provision" of the state constitution.
The state Supreme Court is to hear oral arguments on the case Sept. 25.
Eyman said that even if the Supreme Court rules the two-thirds requirement unconstitutional, voter approval of I-1185 should still give lawmakers pause.
"It's not really the changing of the law that really has the political impact in Olympia. It's the fact that when the voters vote for it, it's really hard for (legislators) to just ignore that," he said.
In addition to requiring a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to increase taxes, I-1185 reimposes a provision that says lawmakers must approve all new fees and fee increases, including tolls.
Fee increases only require a simple majority vote for approval under the measure. However, the Legislature has delegated much of that responsibility to agencies, including the state Transportation Commission, during the past couple of years.
I-1185 would require new legislative approval to impose or increase fees and tolls if a state agency has not previously exercised the authority delegated to it by the Legislature.
The state Office of Financial Management (OFM), the governor's budget office, recently released a fiscal-impact statement estimating that toll revenue could be reduced by up to $33 million in fiscal year 2017 because I-1185 would require the Legislature to reauthorize tolls for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project. OFM says it can't assume that will happen.
Eyman unsuccessfully challenged the impact statement in court, arguing OFM should not have estimated I-1185 would reduce future toll revenue. He said I-1185 just requires the Legislature to vote on fee increases.
"Taking votes is what the Legislature does in Olympia — it doesn't cost anything," he said in a news release.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or email@example.com