Washington State Sued for Overturning Tax Cap

Published July 1, 2005

The State of Washington is being sued by a coalition of grassroots organizations for overturning a voter-approved initiative that limited the state’s power to tax and spend.

The lawsuit calls an emergency clause lawmakers attached to SB 6078 “an unabashed attempt to avoid direct review by the voters.” Because the bill had an emergency clause, it took effect immediately after being signed by the governor instead of the usual 90-day wait. It also blocked citizens from pursuing a referendum to prevent the law from being implemented.

The lawsuit, filed May 3, asks the Washington Supreme Court to protect the voters’ right to file a referendum on legislative actions, as guaranteed by the state constitution. Plaintiffs include the Washington Farm Bureau, Washington State Grange, National Federation of Independent Business, Building Industry Association of Washington, and Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a private public policy research organization.

“Overturning the voter-approved spending limit and raising taxes was neither an emergency nor necessary,” said Bob Williams, Evergreen Freedom Foundation president. “Denying the people the right and opportunity to vote on the legislature’s gutting of I-601 is the real emergency.”

‘Emergency’ Enabled Partisan Passage

Lawmakers approved SB 6078 on April 16. The law amends Initiative 601 to suspend the two-thirds vote threshold needed to raise taxes. It instead allows a simple majority vote, effective immediately and until June 2007. Voters approved Initiative 601 in 1993, after lawmakers hit taxpayers with huge tax increases.

Also on April 16, the Washington Farm Bureau filed for a referendum that would put the issue back before voters in the next general election. Secretary of State Sam Reed refused to accept the referendum because of SB 6078’s emergency clause.

By passing SB 6078, the Democrat-controlled legislature was able to approve $500 million in new taxes and additional spending with a simple majority and no Republican support. (See “Budget Discipline Collapses in Washington State,” Budget & Tax News, June 2005.)

Emergency Claim Hotly Disputed

In their lawsuit, the petitioners argue that appending an emergency clause to the bill was “a clear attempt to deprive people of the right to vote on this significant change to a law initiated by the people.”

The state constitution allows the legislature to adopt an emergency clause, precluding the people’s right to pursue a referendum, only when the law is necessary “for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, or support of state government.”

Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) defended the budget and lawmakers. “If you’re not a millionaire, not a smoker, and you don’t drink hard alcohol, there’s no impact on the citizens of the state of Washington at all,” she told reporters in response to Republican lawmakers who slammed the Democrats’ tactics.

Rep. Eileen Cody (D) told a House Appropriations Committee the budget maneuvers were legal and should be utilized “until the state has a more meaningful expenditure limit that might be able to accommodate the growth of vital state programs.”

Jason Mercier ([email protected]) is a budget research analyst for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.