Tax Analysts Blog

Supermajority Requirements for Raising Taxes Are Troublesome

Posted on Aug 5, 2015

In the state of Washington, the irrepressible conservative political activist Tim Eyman is leading yet another antitax fight. Eyman's Initiative 1366, on the November ballot, could slash state tax revenue by $8 billion over the next six years.

The initiative would reduce the state's 6.5-cent sales tax by a penny, unless the Legislature sends a tax-limiting constitutional amendment to the ballot for a public vote next year. That tax-limiting amendment would implement a two-thirds supermajority vote requirement for the Legislature to pass any tax increases without a public vote. A simple majority of lawmakers could enact a tax increase if it is sent to voters for approval or rejection.

I understand why Eyman remains vigilant. Washington voters have endorsed supermajority requirements to raise taxes on five occasions. One of them was in 1993, when voters approved Initiative 601, providing that any bills containing tax increases should be passed by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. The initiative also required that any tax bill increasing spending beyond the state budget be approved by voters. In 2013 the state supreme court held that the supermajority requirement was unconstitutional because the constitution could not be amended through the initiative process.

The new initiative is aimed at getting the Legislature to take the first step in amending the constitution to adopt a supermajority requirement. My views on supermajority requirements have evolved over the years. And the issue is complicated in Washington, where the residents have long supported supermajority requirements.

Requiring a two-thirds majority of legislators to raise taxes (an idea that liberals detest) is troublesome. It runs contrary to the concept of representative majority rule -- a concept at the heart of American democracy. Questioning whether a majority of legislators can raise taxes seems undemocratic in the greatest democracy that ever was. Moreover, supermajority requirements put a great deal of power in the hands of the minority. Earlier this year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities published a thoughtful critique of supermajority requirements, pointing out that they make it hard to get rid of inefficient and outdated tax breaks.

That being said, there is a weariness among the people. They are tired of taxes and the inefficiencies of government. Whether it's true or not, many people don't think they are getting much for their tax dollars. One way to show their unhappiness with politicians is to limit state tax power. In Washington, the people have spoken before several times. That leads me to believe there is a good chance that Initiative 1366 will pass.

I'm not sure that is a bad thing. Currently, 16 states have some form of supermajority requirement. Those requirements, combined with balanced budget requirements, will no doubt curb spending. But they don't make spending and taxation impossible. They just help to focus spending and taxation on important public issues. And I think that's how the people of Washington will see it in November.

This is an excerpt of a column that will appear in next week's State Tax Notes.

Read Comments (3)

AJAug 5, 2015

David - This is an interesting debate indeed. I agree that the people of
Washington will look to see if 1366 will help focus spending and taxation on
important public issues.

The foundation of a true democracy is the representation of its people. To
represent people is to ask for their vote. To earn peoples' vote is to spend
resources toward the peoples' needs. To spend resources is to tax the people.
This is why many politicians who campaign against big government (or tax
increases) end up increasing the size of government (or find creative ways to
tax people through fees). They help themselves by spending on issues that will
ultimately get them votes. Supermajority or simple majority - a representative
that is perceived to be more effecient in balancing the needs of the people
versus the resources available - is going to win. It is the perception in the
minds of the voter that matters. Whether or not actual facts substantiate the
perception is important but secondary.

edmund dantesAug 6, 2015

Frankly, a supermajority requirement is not nearly strict enough for me. I'd
bar all tax increases except during an actual war, one that Congress had
formally declared. Short of that, the states can make do with the taxation
systems already in place, which are everywhere raising far more revenue than
they should. As the economy grows, so does their revenue, they don't need to
enhance that further with increased rates or new forms of taxation. They need
to spend less.

In CT, I just got a sales tax bill for the payment of local property taxes! I
kid you not. And the idiot politicians just applied the sales tax to state
parking fees at our beaches and parks, instead of boosting fees by $1. So the
cost to park is no longer a round number, everyone has to make change.

Enough is enough, already.

amt buffAug 6, 2015

Supermajority requirements for important decisions help ensure that the
decision has wide support. They tend to improve the quality of the result.

Minor tax increases are not in this category. Major tax increases and major
spending initiatives are. The line is hard to draw and easy for legislatures to
evade, so we get these meat axe proposals instead.

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