OLYMPIA, Wash. - The Washington Supreme Court has struck down a requirement for a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature to pass a tax increase.
A divided high court ruled 6-3 Thursday that an initiative requiring a two-thirds vote 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. The Supreme Court agreed to expedite its consideration.
"This ruling is a huge win for kids and schools," said Chris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education Voters, one of the lead plaintiffs. "Washington schools need to be fully funded in order to ensure that all kids reach their potential. This ruling, combined with the recent McCleary decision, will help ensure that our kids have all the resources they need to get an excellent education."
Most people agree the state needs about $4 billion to fulfill its constitutional promise to fully pay for basic education by 2018.
Gov. Jay Inslee said the court had done the right thing.
"The supermajority requirement gave a legislative majority 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.
"This is a seminal point in our history," she said, noting that the people in every county have already shown their support for a two-thirds tax rule.
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.
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, writes in a dissent, that "In its eagerness to embroil itself in the political arena, the majority abandons any semblance of judicial restraint to declare the process of legislative enactment constitutionally infirm."
Johnson wrote 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."