Amid considerable controversy that seems destined to spill over into the 2010 legislative races, Governor Gregoire and the Democratic-controlled Legislature have suspended a voter-approved initiative that would have required a supermajority two-thirds of both houses to boost taxes or eliminate tax exemptions.
With I-960 now on hold, Olympia can approve a revenue package by a simple majority of both houses. The Senate proposal is for $918 million worth of taxes and “loophole closures,” including a $1-a-pack tax on smokes and a three-tenths of a penny increase in the state sales tax, the first increase since 1983. House Democrats have booked new revenue of $857 million, but haven’t unveiled their plan yet.
Initiative activist Tim Eyman and legislative Republicans are furious that the Democrats have “overturned the will of the voters.” A new poll done for KING 5 News, shows that 68 percent of the respondents said the decision to suspend I-960 was wrong, and 74 percent said they support the two-thirds supermajority requirement for taxes.
That decision, and the taxes that result, will be debated on the campaign trail and Eyman is pushing an initiative to reimpose the two-thirds requirement in 2011 and thereafter.
So the questions we’re getting at the Secretary of State’s Office are: How could they suspend a voter-approved initiative? And, secondly, isn’t it unheard of to “ignore the will of the voters”?
Long story short, it has always been considered legit for the Legislature to amend, suspend or repeal initiatives, just as lawmakers are free to amend, suspend or repeal their own laws that passed in earlier years, and just as the voters have the power via initiative and referendum to amend, suspend or repeal something the Legislature has passed.
Laws seldom stand forever. The Legislature is forever updating, replacing, rearranging, repealing. And initiatives have been repealed or suspended ever since the process was created nearly 100 years ago. The first successful initiative, Prohibition, was later repealed. A review by the state Elections Division showed that since 1952, when voters amended the constitution to make it easier for lawmakers to amend voter-approved initiatives, at least 30 have been changed or suspended. Some have been suspended or amended multiple times — such as the voter mandates for annual pay boosts for teachers and for class-size reduction, and such as I-601 capping state budget growth and making it harder to raise taxes. Both parties have done it.
Before the constitutional amendment of 1952, lawmakers couldn’t touch a voter-approved initiative for the first two years after the vote, but then could change or repeal by a simple majority. The change, adopted by a large majority, said initiatives can be changed, repealed or suspended by a two-thirds vote of both houses during the first two years after passage, and simple majority after that.