For Cascadians in the state of Washington, the ballot measure that needs much more attention this year is Tim Eyman’s latest supermajority voting rule, Initiative 1185. Eyman’s measure would do even more damage to our state in the coming legislative season than its predecessors already have. It’s time to restore fiscal sanity, to say nothing of majority rule, to the state legislature by voting “no.”
Under 1185, as under its nearly identical predecessors, most revenue matters in Olympia require two-thirds House and Senate votes for passage. In other words, they are held hostage to a minority of legislators—a third of senators or representatives—who can block any path forward to a fairer or more adequate revenue system for the state.
When people encounter the Eyman supermajority rule, its oddest effect often strikes them as its craziest: the legislature can (and does) create new tax loopholes by simple majority—at whatever cost to state revenues. But if tax breaks prove ill-considered or outlive their legitimate purposes, it takes a two-thirds vote to remove them from the books. Lobbyists defending tax loopholes need only handfuls of votes—17 senators to be precise—to safeguard tax policies that favor the few at the expense of the many. That’s why special interests (this year, oil companies and liquor and restaurant interests) filled the Eyman campaign war chest with over $1 million for the signature collectors to put I-1185 on the ballot.
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The damage of the supermajority rule goes deeper. It is now starkly worsening our state’s education—the most important issue our state faces. The crisis is huge, even bringing in the voice of the State Supreme Court in the McCleary case declaring that the state has failed its paramount constitutional responsibility to adequately fund K-12 public schools. The results are sobering: slashed funding from recession-starved budgets, for higher education as well as K-12; skyrocketing tuition for community colleges and universities while financial aid plummets.
The Seattle Times reported September 22 “While the percentage of high-school graduates who went to college jumped by nine points in the United States over the past two decades, the percentage of college-going high schoolers in Washington fell.” In that measure, Washington now ranks 46th among US states. So we beggar our higher education system, while high-tech businesses on which our prosperity depends are desperate for workers. The Times quotes a UW computer science professor: “We are creating great jobs, and they are going to other people’s children.”
The problem starts well before college. For contribution to K-12 education as a share of total personal income, Washington’s most recent ranking is 44th, 13 percent below the US average. Spending per pupil ranks 9 percent below the US average.
Digging out of this hole isn’t going to be easy. Both gubernatorial candidates profess it can be done without new revenues, probably wishful campaign posturing. But even an approach to the McCleary problem embraced by Republican Rob McKenna—the so-called levy swap idea—could be blocked in Olympia by the supermajority requirement if I-1185 passes.
Parents, students, and educators have gained a powerful ally in their concern for education: leaders of the state’s business community. Business leaders looking at the baleful education landscape know something has to be done. Important reforms are needed, and so is funding that pulls the state out of the race to the bottom. Connecting the dots, and reversing its once pro-Eyman stand, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce summed it up last month: “Locking the legislature into a supermajority requirement for another two years would make it virtually impossible to address the state’s education funding crisis.”
Business groups elsewhere are equally chary and voters seem to pay attention. In September, polling on a supermajority November ballot measure in Michigan plummeted 17 points in a month when strenuous opposition emerged from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and then Republican Governor Rick Snyder weighed in: “The two-thirds amendment causes more problems than it solves, and it’s a bad idea for Michigan.” By last week its approval polling had fallen a stunning 13 points further to just 37.7 percent.
Meanwhile, the supermajority rule Eyman’s initiatives have pasted on our state government is equally under fire from the simple perspective of civics, fairness and our state constitution. Our constitution since 1889 has said that no bill shall become a law without a majority vote, thus capturing a fundamental principle of representative democracy: every senator or representative from whatever party or whatever district of the state, serves equally with all the others. The supermajority gimmick changes that: if one-third can stop the work as willed by the majority, then a few legislators’ votes count twice as much as the others. That’s undemocratic.
Last July, a court directly took up the issue and ruled the revenue supermajority rule unconstitutional. The State Supreme Court now has the matter under review. We all learned from the federal health care decision last spring not to second-guess how a court will rule, but to us, the weight of the arguments certainly seems to have mounted against the Eyman position. Voters troubled by letting Eyman’s approach fog the fairness of representative democracy are entitled to take notice of another good reason—the constitution—for voting no.
Finally, voters can assess the experience of other states. A few other states do indeed require supermajority votes for tax measures, and unlike Washington, they have written it into their constitutions. The rule has choked legislative good sense, compromise and fiscal balance in responding to the national recession. The results debunk any claim that ordinary people are protected by supermajority rules on revenue.
A Wisconsin study showed that states with broad supermajority requirements averaged twice the job loss through the recession as states with no supermajority constraints. Citizens in two states, Arizona and Nevada, that suffered bond-rating downgrades from Moody’s during the recession learned that their supermajority requirements were a factor, raising hurdles to balanced financial solutions going forward. In Colorado, a related form of revenue restriction finally made things so bad for schools, roads, and public services that Colorado’s Republican governor finally said enough and asked voters to suspend it, which they did.
Every way you cut it, Eyman’s supermajority rule in I-1185 is the wrong approach for today. It’s not about solutions to benefit average taxpayers. It’s about paralysis and shortsighted protection of tax breaks for special interests at the expense of our broader needs.
Washingtonians, it’s time to vote no.
Doug MacDonald, a retired former Washington State Secretary of Transportation and Sightline Institute Fellow, lives in Seattle, taking on civic projects including serving as co-chair of the No on I-1185 campaign.