Washington State Supreme Court Rejects Tax Initiative

July 15, 2005

Washington state law (I-601) requires a 2/3 majority in each house of the legislature before a tax increase can be approved. This law was passed as a result of a referendum voted on by the people of Washington. The state constitution allows the legislature to forego the people’s right to a referendum if “…necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety, or support of the state government and its existing public institutions.”

In the recent legislative session, the legislature passed a bill setting aside the 2/3 requirement and passed tax increases by a simple majority vote. The legislature said this was necessary to preserve the peace, health and safety in Washington and to support state government. This led to a backlash and a signature gathering drive to reverse the tax increase by referendum. The Secretary of State, however, refused to certify the referendum because the legislature had declared an emergency, and the referendum proponents sued him in the state Supreme Court.

The state Supreme Court just ruled that the legislature’s declaration of emergency was valid. What was the emergency? According to the court’s ruling, the emergency was an anticipated budget deficit and a lack of projected revenue. This was sufficient, in the court’s mind, to declare an emergency and forego the need for the people to approve the tax increases at the ballot box.

If a budget deficit is an emergency, then it’s hard to see how anything could not conceivably be labeled an emergency. The Washington Supreme Court has effectively gutted the state’s tax limitation (not the first time a state Supreme Court has done this), or any other legislation that a majority of lawmakers does not like, by allowing the legislature to be the sole arbiter of what “emergency” means under the state constitution.


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