Lewis County legislators have split along party lines in response to the state Supreme Court's ruling that overturns the voter-enacted 2/3 requirement for tax increases, with 20th District Republicans condemning the decision for defying the will of the people and silencing the voice of the minority, and 19th District Democrats praising the decision as sensible, responsible and fair.
Twentieth District legislator, Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, said he was saddened by the court decision which, he said, will have "a lot of implications."
"(The two-thirds majority) allowed the minority to have a voice, and it meant we had to be bipartisan. We've taken that away," DeBolt told The Chronicle on Thursday afternoon. "I think it's sad. It's sad for the taxpayers, and it's sad for our children, because we're making Washington a place that's too expensive for them to live."
Earlier this session, DeBolt, the House Minority Leader and the ranking minority member on the House Rules Committee, introduced an initiative that would have changed the chamber’s rules permanently to require the supermajority to raise taxes. That measure was defeated along party lines by House Democrats.
Fellow 20th District Representative, Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, echoed DeBolt's frustration with the court decision and, what he described as, "the insatiable spending appetite in Olympia."
“Today’s ruling by the state Supreme Court is a slap in the face to the hardworking taxpayers in this state who want a high threshold for tax increases," Orcutt said in a press statement. “The voters have approved some form of taxpayer protections five times in the last 20 years. Yet their own elected officials succeeded once again in removing these taxpayer protections."
Approving Initiative 1185 and its similar predecessors five times is not proof that citizens are opposed to all taxes, it’s proof they want their money to be spent wisely, according to Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia.
“They want a high bar, they want broad consensus in Olympia,” Braun said. “Without that kind of restriction all we see is more spending and more taxes instead of taking advantage of the money we have now and using that to its maximum value.”
Orcutt, the assistant ranking Republican on the House Finance Committee and the sponsor of House Joint Memorial 4206 — which would amend the state constitution to require a supermajority to raise taxes — said it's time for legislators to take matters into their own hands.
"If the Court feels the will of the people is inconsistent with our constitution," he said, "perhaps it is time we made sure our state constitution is consistent with the will of the people."
Braun also voiced cautious optimism about a possible constitutional amendment, in part because the Senate Ways and Means Committee — of which Braun is a member — passed such amendment on to the Rules Committee on Thursday afternoon.
But DeBolt isn't so sure.
Asked whether the Legislature could pass an amendment, DeBolt said he did not know. "They wanted to raise taxes and they were going to find a way to do it, no matter what," he said.
Nineteenth District Democrat Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, who opposes the two-thirds majority, said he was not surprised by the court ruling.
"It was a no brainer. Allowing for minority rule doesn't make a whole lot of sense," he said.
“I don’t know how they could have found it any other way,” Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview, added. “Allowing 17 people in the Senate to control the entire 147 people in the Legislature is not the way we should be doing things. It’s not what the founding fathers envisioned.”
Hatfield knows his position isn't popular — but it's the right position to have, he said. "There's a very false premise that legislators want to increase taxes, that it's an easy thing to do,” Hatfield said. “The last thing any politician wants to do is raise taxes. We know it’s unpopular.”
"The easy political response would be outrage — 'but my God, this is what the people want!'" he said. "But if folks could vote to pay less on products in the grocery store or hardware store, folks would vote to pay less. At some point in every legislative career, you have to be responsible."
“There’s a big disconnect between what people want and what people are willing to pay for,” Takko added.
Had the court ruled that the supermajority was constitutional, Olympia would have seen a flood of interest groups taking advantage of the new opportunity, according to Hatfield. Pro-choice or Second Amendment advocates could have put through legislation requiring two-third or three-quarter majorities to ensure permanent protection of their pet issues, he said.
Accordingly, if the two-thirds majority is to be required for financial decisions — as proposed in the Republican-sponsored initiatives — it should be required for all decisions, and Hatfield will introduce amendments to that effect, he said.
"If it's good for fiscal, it's good for everything," the senator, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, said. "If you're saying legislators can't be trusted with financial decisions, they can't be trusted with any decisions."
"People need to really take a look at this," he added. “Where does it stop?"
Despite the ruling, nothing will change this session, because, according to Hatfield, the Legislature will not have enough votes to get any tax increase passed. The only way that could happen is to get an initiative on the ballot, he said.
This story has been corrected since it was originally posted to reflect that the most recent voter-approved initiative was I-1185, not I-1165 as originally written.