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Wash. High Court Hears Arguments On Supermajority Requirement

OLYMPIA, Wash. – The Washington Supreme Court could decide by the end of this year whether a voter-approved two-thirds requirement for tax hikes is constitutional. But first, the justices must determine who has the right to challenge the law. That technical question was the focus of oral arguments Tuesday .

It’s not as if the Washington Supreme Court hasn’t heard this case before –- or at least ones similar. Four years ago, it was Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown leading the charge to strike down the supermajority rule.

But the high court found Brown didn’t have standing to bring the case. So now it’s 12 House Democrats who are mostly new to the legislature Last year they tried to sunset a tax break for banks in order to free up some money for education.

“Mr. Speaker, what is the number of votes required for final passage for Substitute House Bill 2078?” asked Rep. Laurie Jinkins on the House floor.

The answer was a supermajority of the members. But supporters could only muster a simple majority. So, the bill died.

And the sponsors sued.

At the Supreme Court the question once again was whether these lawmakers have the standing to bring this case. State Solicitor General Maureen Hart –- defending the supermajority rule -- argued they do not.

One justice asked her: how could a case like this get brought before the court properly.

Initiative promoter Tim Eyman on the steps of the Washington Supreme Court wearing a red T-shirt that says, "Exercise your right to vote" in white capital letters.
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Northwest News Network file
Initiative promoter Tim Eyman on the steps of the Washington Supreme Court after oral arguments in a lawsuit to overturn his supermajority requirement for tax hikes. Photo by Austin Jenkins

Hart replied, “If the legislature simply passed, as it may, a tax increase on a simple majority vote and that tax increase were challenged by someone subject to the tax.”

But Representative Jinkins says to pass a tax hike on a simple majority vote and send it to the governor would be a violation of her oath of office.

“Their argument is you have to pass a law that breaks the law and then once you’ve passed a law that’s broken a law and the governor’s signed the law that’s broken a law then someone that law applies to would sue over it and that’s how it comes to this court.”

If the court decides the lawmakers have standing, the next question is whether the supermajority threshold is constitutional.

Meanwhile initiative activist Tim Eyman is back before voters again this year with another supermajority ballot measure.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.