Politics & Government

Senate puts brakes on tax initiative

The state Senate voted narrowly Monday evening to suspend Initiative 960 and allow easier passage of tax increases this year in the state Legislature.

The bill allows tax increases to pass on a simple majority vote instead of a two-thirds supermajority. The final vote was 26-21 to send Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 6130 to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who is expected to sign it into law on Wednesday morning.

Five Democrats crossed over to vote against it – Sens. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens, Claudia Kauffman of Kent, Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor, Chris Marr of Spokane and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, rejected GOP claims that the majority was overruling the “will of the people” or doing anything unusual by suspending the initiative. I-960 passed with 51 percent voter support in 2007.

Brown said the will of the public was also expressed when voters approved yearly increases in the minimum wage tied to inflation, and on other occasions. “I’d say it’s a double standard to say the will of the people is respected in one case and not in another case,” Brown said. She said virtually every senator on the floor had voted to suspend an initiative at some point.

The bill, in effect, lets Democrats raise taxes without Republican votes in the final days of the 60-day session, which is scheduled to end March 11. As time runs out, Senate Democrats are scheduled to unveil their plan to bridge about $1.7 billion of the budget shortfall with a mixture of spending cuts and new revenues, including taxes.

Republicans complained that the bill does more than change the tax-vote rules. It also suspends a requirement under I-960 that any tax increases be sent to a statewide vote and a requirement that all tax votes be published in the November voter pamphlet.

Some Republican claimed the majority Democrats were trying to “conceal” their votes – even though the right-leaning Washington Policy Center has already said it plans to publish its own vote guide to the tax bills that emerge this session.

“The public wants sunshine on government. This is more like a total solar eclipse,’’ said Sen. Don Benton, a Vancouver Republican who had helped craft I-960 with Tim Eyman.

Sen. Janae Holmquist, R-Moses Lake, said Democrats were showing an attitude of “shut up and pay up” toward taxpayers. Holmquist claimed that suspending the public notices in the voter pamphlet would “conceal” the votes from the public.

Republican Sens. Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla and Joseph Zarelli of Ridgefield sent Gregoire a letter asking her to veto the sections of the bill that suspend the advisory vote on tax increases and the publication of tax votes in the voter pamphlet. But Gregoire’s legislative director, Marty Brown, said he would be “surprised” if the governor vetoed the sections. He said the bill signing is tentatively set for Wednesday morning.

The I-960 vote appeared to hit a surprise obstacle early in the evening after a handful of Senate Democrats were balking at voting a third time on the measure. But in the end, the same 26 Democrats voted for the measure as did the first two times the bill came up earlier this month.

“Part of the problem is we took some votes that didn’t pass in the House, like the furlough bill,” said Democratic Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island, who was seen talking to members such as Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Tacoma, before the vote. “I think people had concerns the message is getting out that we’re not taking cuts (but) we’re raising revenues, which is not true.’’

Kastama ended up voting for the bill.