What part of "no " do some Olympia lawmakers not understand? Three times, in 1993, 1998 and 2007, the people of Washington passed a requirement saying, "Do not raise our taxes without a two-thirds vote in the legislature." Each time lawmakers, chaffing under voter-imposed restraints, repealed or suspended the limitation. Conveniently - for them – lawmakers only need a majority vote to repeal the two-thirds vote requirement, and they did it again earlier this year.
Lawmakers then proceeded to increase taxes by $800 million ($6.7 billion over 10 years), boosting a host of existing levies and creating some new ones. The governor signed the increases in April as part of a larger budget package. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, when it comes to limiting people's tax burden, Olympia is simply not listening.
This November the people of Washington will try again. Initiative 1053 would reinstate the state law requiring that tax increases be adopted with a two-thirds vote in the legislature.
Opponents of Initiative 1053 say it is unsound policy and point to California, arguing the state is almost ungovernable, that "things have gotten so bad there is a movement...to get rid of the onerous, unworkable minority veto power, and restore majority rule."
They are referring to Proposition 25, which would end the need for a two-thirds vote to pass a budget. It is true Sacramento is mired in gridlock when it comes to passing a budget, but guess what? Proposition 25 confirms California's current taxpayer protections. The text reads: "This measure will not change the two-thirds vote requirement for the legislature to raise taxes." Polls indicate Proposition 25 will probably pass.
Limiting the power to raise taxes is not rare among America's fifty democracies. Fourteen other states impose supermajority requirements on lawmakers. Some, like Kentucky, Oregon and Delaware, set the bar a bit lower, requiring a three-fifths vote to raise taxes in those states.
If Initiative 1053 passes, the tax limit will arrive in Olympia just in time. In January the legislature will face a projected $4.5 billion budget shortfall. Without a two-thirds vote restriction, the legislature is likely to raise taxes again, potentially increasing the long-term tax burden by billions of dollars.
Higher taxes would only add to the state's economic woes. The recession has been hard on many Washington families, requiring painful cutbacks in day-to-day expenses, not to mention possibly losing the house. Yet while private sector unemployment remains stubbornly above 9%, many in state government are doing just fine.
The annual salary for some state positions routinely tops $200,000 a year, and records show that over 100 professors and staff in state higher education make over $240,000 a year. While many in the private sector are forced to drop health coverage and dip into retirement savings to get by, state-funded health and pension benefits have reached levels most private-sector workers can only dream of.
To top it all off, the national outlook for taxpayers is not bright. Unless Congress acts, the Bush tax cuts will expire and federal taxes will revert to their 2000 levels, raising taxes for nearly all income groups. The federal estate tax will return with a vengeance, with a tax rate that jumps from zero this year to 55% in 2011.
Some people say supermajority vote requirements are undemocratic, but there is nothing undemocratic about the people limiting the power of their elected representatives. For years lawmakers were able to increase the financial burden on citizens by a simple majority vote. They abused that power, increasing the size of state government by 34% in just four years. The spending binge set the state up for an even bigger fall when the recession hit.
As I've noted before, if the legislature and the governor had not increased spending so much during the fat years, there would be less need to consider painful budget cuts now. The purpose of requiring a supermajority to raise taxes is to impose from outside the spending discipline lawmakers can't seem to find within themselves.
If Initiative 1053 passes, legislators may finally get the message: match spending to the revenue available, instead of reducing family budgets in order to grow their own budget.
Paul Guppy is Vice President for Research at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Washington state. For more information visit washingtonpolicy.org.