A proposal to change the Senate’s voting rules to make it harder to raise taxes will be one of the first items of business when the Legislature convenes Monday.
Sens. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale and Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane propose new rules that would require a two-thirds vote of the state Senate for any measure that increases taxes. In effect their proposal would re-enact the state’s popular two-thirds-for-taxes law, which was approved by Washington voters five times between 1993 and 2012. The state Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in 2013.
“This year, more than ever, taxpayers need this sort of protection,” Ericksen said. “Lawmakers of both parties need to work together to reform and streamline government before they even think about raising taxes. A supermajority requirement means we can’t take the easy way out.”
Right now it takes a simple majority vote to pass most bills in the state Senate, 25 of 49 members. Under the proposed rule changes, it would take a two-thirds vote of the state Senate to pass any measure that raises taxes – 33 of 49 members. A key legal point is that the rule would not apply to final passage, but rather to the procedural motion that is required to advance such bills for a final vote on the Senate floor. The state constitution authorizes each chamber of the Legislature to adopt its own procedural rules.
The proposed rule changes make an exception for tax measures that are submitted to voters in the form of a referendum. When voter approval is required, only a simple majority vote of the Senate would be necessary.
The essential difference between the Senate rule-change proposal and the law that was passed repeatedly by voters is that it would apply to just one chamber of the Legislature. Yet it would have much the same effect, because all bills must be approved by both chambers. That means every measure that raises taxes would still have to clear the two-thirds hurdle. A two-thirds vote also would be required on motions to concur with House bills that raise taxes, prior to final passage.
“Voters demonstrated five times that they wanted this protection,” Baumgartner said. “What the Supreme Court took away, the Legislature can return – and it’s about time we did it. The Supreme Court can make its rulings in its chamber. The Senate makes its own rules in ours.”
The Supreme Court held that voters did not have the right to impose a supermajority voting requirement on the Legislature because the rule went beyond the requirements outlined by the state constitution for final passage of a bill. But lawmakers have the right to devise their own procedural rules. If the Senate adopts the two-thirds rule, lawmakers would have to suspend or change it to avoid a supermajority vote.
“In a year when we have $3 billion more to spend, and numerous voices say that’s still not enough, you bet we need to take a hard look at state spending,” Ericksen said. “This may not be as strong as the voter-approved two-thirds rule, but it will make sure we get the job done.”