Eyman's initiative would again place hurdle for tax hikes

Initiative activist Tim Eyman's latest smaller-government campaign is straight from his greatest hits collection: requiring a two-thirds supermajority for the Legislature to raise taxes.

The concept has been supported by Washington voters several times in ballot measures over the years. It also has been suspended by state lawmakers when tight budgets push them to raise taxes, as majority Democrats did earlier this year.

With the economy still stagnant, voters feeling uneasy and the state budget continuing to hemorrhage revenue, Eyman and his business supporters see a perfect opportunity to reinstate those roadblocks.

Initiative 1053 would make state tax increases more difficult to impose by forcing the Legislature to get a two-thirds majority vote, rather than the simple majority required for most legislation. Lawmakers also could send taxes to the ballot for simple-majority approval by voters.

Supporters point to this year’s $770 million package of tax hikes from the Democrat-led Legislature and Gov. Chris Gregoire, part of the solution to a $2.8 billion deficit in the roughly $30 billion state general fund budget.

Those tax hikes would have been impossible under I-1053, as Democrats had to suspend the two-thirds hurdle before moving ahead with lower majorities to raise taxes.

“They were never debating whether to increase taxes. They were debating ‘Which taxes do we increase, and how much do we increase them?’” Eyman said. “That’s not what voters want. They want tax increases to be the last resort.”

Some of I-1053’s supporters also are looking to protect themselves during next year’s legislative session, when Olympia will be grappling with yet another major budget deficit tied to the Great Recession.

A prime example is the oil industry, which blocked an attempt by environmentalists earlier this year to raise taxes on refineries. Oil companies have given about $280,000 combined to the two committees supporting I-1053.

A wide range of other business interests have joined in the cause, including restaurateurs, real estate agents, banks, forest products companies and farmers. As in his recent campaigns, Eyman also loaned I-1053 $250,000 to get the expensive signature-gathering phase of the campaign under way.

Overall, supporters have spent more than $940,000, according to the latest figures from the state Public Disclosure Commission. Most of that has gone toward signature-gathering costs to get the measure on the ballot. The money is spread between two campaign committees, one tied to Eyman’s ongoing initiative operation and the other the Association of Washington Business.

Opponents of I-1053 are waging a “no” campaign on a relatively shoestring budget, with about $125,000 raised and very little spent so far. Most of the money comes from labor unions and hospitals.

But some liberal advocates have put together a combined public-education effort to oppose several initiatives and enact their own preferred ballot measures: an income tax on the wealthy and a debt-financed program of energy efficiency upgrades at public buildings.

Opponents stress that I-1053 will allow a small slice of the Legislature to overthrow the usual principle of majority rule, an effect they call undemocratic. Critics also argue the concept is legally problematic, since the state constitution says most legislation is passed by a simple majority vote.

“It basically ties the hands of the Legislature and allows a small minority to take control of the budget. It’s not as the constitution intended it,” said Celia Schorr, spokeswoman for the opposition campaign.

Opponents also point out that the measure would make it tougher for the Legislature to roll back any tax breaks that are on the books, since that would be defined as a tax increase under the measure.