SEATTLE (AP) — The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday made it easier for the Legislature to raise taxes, ruling that the only way to require a supermajority vote is to enshrine it in the Constitution.
Democrats said potential taxes need to be part of the conversation in Olympia, but Republicans in the House and a Republican-dominated majority in the Senate said they would work to keep the two-thirds vote requirement.
A divided high court ruled 6-3 that an initiative requiring a two-thirds requirement for tax increases was in conflict with the state Constitution and that lawmakers and the people of Washington would need to pass a constitutional amendment to change from a simple majority to a supermajority.
A coalition of lawmakers and education groups sued the state over the issue, and a King County judge decided last spring that the state constitution requires only a simple majority to pass tax proposals.
Chris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education Voters, lead plaintiff with the Washington Education Association, called the decision a huge win for kids and schools, because it could make it easier to find money for the state to fully pay for basic education in Washington, as required by the Supreme Court's ruling last year in the McCleary case.
"I don't expect a rush to propose tax hikes, just based on the decision," Korsmo added.
Democrats controlling the House have indicated support for taxes and fees to help balance the budget and add new money to the state education system. However, a Republican-dominated coalition in the state Senate has focused its message on spending restraint and Gov. Jay Inslee vowed during his campaign last year to veto tax increases.
Rep. Ross Hunter, a Democratic budget writer, said voters elected legislators to represent them.
"I think voters want us to be thoughtful, and we're going to be thoughtful," Hunter said.
It's been estimated that the state needs about $4 billion to fulfill its constitutional promise to fully pay for basic education by 2018. The Supreme Court has ordered the Legislature to show meaningful progress toward that goal during this session. The state also faces an estimated $975 million shortfall for the next biennium.
Gov. Jay Inslee said the court had done the right thing.
"The supermajority requirement gave a legislative minority the power to squelch ideas even when those ideas had majority support. That is inconsistent with our fundamental form of representative democracy," Inslee said in a statement.
State Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, said the court had opened the "floodgates of taxation" with its ruling. The chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Operations Committee has already proposed a constitutional amendment to make the two-thirds majority permanent.
The Republican-controlled Senate Ways and Means Committee passed Roach's measure 13-10 Thursday afternoon, with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats except Sen. Rodney Tom, of Medina, voting against.
To pass a constitutional amendment, the Legislature must approve the measure by a two-thirds majority and then it goes to the people for a simple majority vote.
Senate Republicans initially said they were exploring the possibility of changing Senate rules to still require a two-thirds vote on tax issues, but later reversed course and said that was off the table.
The two-thirds majority rule has been approved in a series of initiatives pushed by activist Tim Eyman. Voters most recently approved the supermajority rule last November.
In a statement reacting to the court decision, Eyman wrote that the voters were more enthusiastic about his most recent tax initiative than they were about the new governor. He said he agreed with a dissent by Justice Jim Johnson that "democracy will carry the day," and the voters will not be denied their rights.
Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said he is open to discussion about putting more tax limits into the Constitution — perhaps a limit to the sales tax if lawmakers considered an income tax. But Pedersen, who was a plaintiff in the case, and other Democrats are opposed the idea of a constitutional amendment on the two-thirds rule.
Democratic Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said whatever decision lawmakers make on taxes, voters still have their say at the ballot through referendums and elections.
"We are accountable on those votes," said Frockt, who was a plaintiff in the case.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Susan Owens, states that under a commonsense understanding, any bill receiving a simple majority vote will become law. No language in the provision qualifies that requirement by stating a bill needs "at least a majority vote."
They wrote that without the simple majority rule in the Constitution, the people or the Legislature could require particular bills to receive 90 percent approval rather than just a two-thirds approval, thus essentially ensuring that those types of bills would never pass.
"Such a result is antithetical to the notion of a functioning government and should be rejected as such," the justices wrote.
Justice Charles Johnson wrote in a dissent that voters have repeatedly voted for the supermajority provision, and that the court has repeatedly been asked to weigh in in past years and had previously "rejected the invitation to engage in this political dispute, exercising the wisdom, restraint, and temperance not to step outside the court's constitutional authority."
"Evidently something has changed, though the majority does not tell us what, to cause it to abandon these limiting principles and chart a new course for the court to more actively engage in the political process," he wrote. "This change is both unwise and unprecedented."
Justice Jim Johnson, writing in a separate dissent, wrote that the majority "ironically overrides our constitution and prior case law to enforce an invented policy concern: the fear that laws requiring a supermajority to raise taxes permit a tyranny of the minority."
He said that with its decision, the majority is becoming the tyrannous minority it purports to guard against.
Associated Press writers Rachel La Corte, Mike Baker and Jonathan Kaminsky contributed to this story from Olympia.