AT a time when major electoral decisions loom, perhaps the most consequential decision we make this year will be over Tim Eyman’s deceptively malicious two-thirds requirement to raise state revenues or close tax exemptions.
That decision, whether it comes at the ballot box or from a judgment by the state Supreme Court, will determine whether we are successful in building a robust economy and an engaged civil society in Washington state. Will we catalyze success in an increasingly competitive world, or continue an inexorable slide to the bottom among the states in critical arenas like basic public education, higher education productivity, transportation infrastructure and more?
That is what is at stake with Initiative 1185 on the Nov. 6 ballot.
To some, I-1185 seems like an effective tool to limit the reach of Olympia politicians. The deeper truth is that by subverting the principle of majority rule — born of our nation’s revolution against the tyranny of minority rule — our democratic institutions of governance become corroded. The two-thirds requirement is unconstitutional, undemocratic, unsustainable and rife with unintended consequences that subvert our state’s ability to sculpt thoughtful, balanced policy instruments that effectively address the challenges we face as a state.
Washington is sixth in the nation in the quality of our business tax environment that empowers innovation, according to the National Chamber Foundation, and 29th in the nation in the combination of state and local taxes, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation. Yet data compiled by the League of Education Voters and other respected education voices show we lag near the bottom in the nation in funding and quality of our public-education system. We are discovering that with supermajority rule in place, the ability of our Legislature to prioritize public education while still providing a modest safety net of services is virtually eliminated.
We all understand that our state constitution must be honored as the foundational text of our polity. Yet the two-thirds rule nakedly violates its plain language and meaning. Earlier this year a respected lower court judge declared the obvious: that when our constitution states that laws are passed by “a majority,” that means a simple majority, no more and no less. Our state Supreme Court — which is reviewing the lower-court ruling — will likely uphold that decision. In the interim, we should reject Tim Eyman’s attempt to use a simple majority vote by initiative to eliminate our founders’ idea of majority rule.
Eyman could attempt to amend the constitution’s “majority” language. The irony, of course, is that proponents would need to win the support of two-thirds of the members of each house of the Legislature and a vote of the people — a telling indication of why this undemocratic idea is so problematic.
Beyond the constitutional issues, the two-thirds rule throws sand in the gears of open, transparent governance. Handing a de facto veto power to a minority of legislators encourages partisan gridlock. By handing veto power over almost any revenue bill to 17 of 147 legislators, we empower the most extreme and partisan elements of the Legislature to control the public agenda.
Moreover, minority control opens the door to manipulation of the legislative process by special interests. Follow the money. Eyman’s initiative is funded with huge checks written by deep-pocketed interest groups: $200,000 from BP and ConocoPhillips, $400,000 from the Beer Institute, and more.
Why is so much out-of-state money flowing to support I-1185? The two-thirds rule offers these interests the protection of a rigid supermajority barrier by making it impossible to reform our overly complex tax code through the elimination of underperforming tax exemptions. I-1185 is so poorly written it allows new tax breaks to be created with a simple majority vote, but then requires a two-thirds vote to eliminate those same breaks. That is inefficient and unfair.
In the far-reaching McCleary decision in January, the state Supreme Court ratified the obvious: We are violating our constitution by underfunding education at the state level.
Without greater policy flexibility, we will never fulfill the court’s order to equitably address our education deficit. To accomplish that task, we need to substantially increase investment in basic education, but if we pass I-1185 we will make it nearly impossible to do so. The same is true of higher education, where cutbacks continue to deepen and tuition has skyrocketed. If we want to improve our public educational system to create the skilled workforce needed in today’s global economy, we must reject the two-thirds requirement.
In 1992, Colorado passed a tax-limitation measure that had similar intent as I-1185. It kept the Legislature from raising revenue, no matter how great the need. By the mid-2000s, vital funding for schools, roads, public safety and even childhood immunization was being slashed. Things grew so dire that Colorado’s Republican governor asked the voters to suspend it, which they did. If we don’t want Washington to experience the same decline, we must reject 1185.
Eyman likes to chide that voters have approved the two-thirds requirement in the past, and we must “honor the will of the people.” But the people have a right to change their minds about a measure. That seems to be happening now: The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Everett Herald, Wenatchee World and others have reversed their previous support and spoken against I-1185’s supermajority rule.
We must come together as a community to reject simplistic non-solutions like eliminating majority rule. We need a balanced, bipartisan, thoughtful approach to our challenges. We are so much more than what we’ve become as a state. Let’s defend the vision of our founders and vote no on I-1185.
State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat, serves the Queen Anne, Magnolia and Ballard neighborhoods in Seattle.