Tim Eyman’s latest initiative, I-1366, seeks to put in place a 2/3 vote requirement for legislators to raise taxes. If that stirs up feelings of déjà vu, it should. Washington voters have enacted 2/3 rules five separate times. The last two 2/3 initiatives, in 2010 and 2012, both passed with 64% of the vote.
Each time, Democratic lawmakers either fought the 2/3 rule in court or repealed the initiatives after two years. After declining several times to rule on the matter, in 2013 the state Supreme Court ruled that 2/3 requirements for legislative tax increases violate the state constitution.
New way to attack the question
The court’s ruling means the only way to enact a 2/3 rule is through a constitutional amendment. In Washington, those can only originate from the Legislature, not a ballot measure, and the legislative vote must be by 2/3 in each chamber. Democratic legislators would never let a constitutional amendment on the 2/3 rule advance.
I-1366 utilizes a novel approach to force action on a constitutional amendment. If passed, the initiative would cut the state sales tax (currently at 6.5 cents per dollar) by a penny if legislators do not send a 2/3 amendment to the voters.
From a legal perspective, I-1366 may not fly, and it would no doubt be immediately challenged in court (and is, in fact, being challenged already). It is one more opportunity for Washington voters to express their preference for 2/3 rules, which is always tricky for Democratic legislators from swing districts to navigate.
History of voter-enacted 2/3 rules
A broad group of stakeholders – business groups, labor unions, tribes, environmentalists – joined an effort, at Gov. Jay Inslee’s behest, to help update the state’s water quality standards. Washington’s standards are under the gun by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and without an update acceptable to the EPA, the agency might change Washington’s standards unilaterally.
Businesses and cities are greatly concerned that standards set too high would be unachievable and quite expensive. Jobs would be lost, they say, and water rates would skyrocket.
As part of the overall effort, Inslee called for a bill targeting “non-point” sources of toxins that make their way into water supplies. A compromise bill passed the House in March. In the Senate, both the environment and budget committees gave it “do pass” recommendations, but amid the negotiations and wrangling over the state budget in special session, the toxins bill was not brought to a vote in the Senate.
Inslee throws a monkeywrench
Many of the stakeholders advising Inslee on water quality assumed work on the water standards would continue and legislators could take another stab at passing the toxins bill next year. Instead, Inslee announced last week that without a toxins bill, he’s essentially scrapping the work already completed on water quality. The Spokesman-Review editorialized:
Last summer, Gov. Jay Inslee released a pragmatic plan to update the state’s clean-water standards. Friday, he walked away from the solution that was three years in the making and involved extensive collaboration among municipal, industrial and environmental stakeholders.
He not only scrapped the state’s best shot at cleaning up waterways, he gave many people reason to utter “never again” to invitations from government to help solve a problem.
The move surprised many. It also has some speculating that it may be a way for Inslee to get what he wants – very high water quality rules – without taking the blame for those rules and the costs that would result.
If the EPA intervened and set Washington’s standards to Oregon’s level – and the EPA Region 10 office has already indicated that’s the end result it wants to see – Inslee could conceivably say that it’s those darn legislators fault, not his. His tribal and environmental allies would score it as a victory. As for business, labor, and municipal interests, they may have a different take on that narrative.
For all the talk about bold proposals in Olympia this year, legislators didn’t pass any new general taxes or initiate big programs. Democrats have been happy to chalk that up to Republican control of the state Senate (and certainly that’s a big factor), but on many of the most controversial bills, it was never clear the 51 House Democrats could muster 50 votes for passage.
The House, run by Speaker Frank Chopp, proposed a budget with $1.5 billion in new taxes, but never actually voted to pass those new taxes. Under their proposal, the $1.5 billion was supposed to come from a tax on capital gains income and by making permanent a temporary B&O surcharge that expired in 2013.
House Democrats didn’t vote on either of those ideas. Nor did they take up Gov. Jay Inslee’s cap-and-trade proposal.
Oddly enough, Democrats seemed quick to embrace the message that they were just trying to avoid exposing members to an unpopular vote, since Senate Republicans were unlikely to approve these taxes anyway. It’s odd because most of the time, politicians try to avoid looking like they’re engaging in feckless political maneuvering instead of standing on principle.
The message was no doubt preferable, though, to admitting House Democrats didn’t have the votes to pass the new taxes that their base supports.
It’s clear that with narrow partisan advantage, Speaker Chopp is operating in a very different environment from his post-2006 high water mark. If Republican Teri Hickel defeats appointed Rep. Carol Gregory in this fall’s 30th District special election, Chopp’s caucus will be down to a 50-48 advantage. He’d need an awful lot of caucus unity to pass anything on the liberal wishlist in 2016.
When Gov. Jay Inslee signed the new state transportation package into law last week, most assumed it meant an end to the controversy over a governor-imposed low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS). The package includes a “poison pill” insisted on by Senate Republicans that if Inslee signs an executive order on LCFS, certain transit and multi-modal transportation funding will be transferred to highway projects.
Most thought the poison pill meant the end of Inslee’s ambition to sidestep the Legislature and put an LCFS in place on his own. Now, the governor’s spokesman is putting that assumption in doubt.
Jim Brunner of the Seattle Times broke the story on Saturday:
Despite the poison-pill regulation, Inslee’s office has signaled he is still considering moving ahead on a low-carbon fuel standard. While that would trigger a shift in transit money, Inslee and his allies could gamble on a fight to restore the funding in a subsequent legislative session.
Publicola reported Monday that Inslee spokesman David Postman said the governor is “meeting with stakeholders” to discuss putting an LCFS in place despite opposition and the poison pill. That would imperil the spending covered by the poison pill provision, but Inslee could gamble that the Legislature next year will add new funding for the cut programs.
Move would be a risk
It’s unclear, though, what motivation legislative Republicans would have to restore the funding. Critics, including many legislative Republicans, believe an LCFS would raise the price of gas without providing any appreciable environmental benefit.
More to the point, Inslee putting an LCFS in place after agreeing to the poison pill provision could severely damage any comity between Inslee and legislative Republicans. They pursued the provision as an insurance measure against an executive order, one many Republicans needed to feel comfortable voting yes on the transportation package.
Allies are nervous
The idea that Inslee might sign an LCFS order anyway and invoke the poison pill provision is making some allies nervous. Saying the transportation package included “historic investments” in “safe streets, new sidewalks and bike pathways,” the policy director of Washington Bikes told Publicola, “Now those investments are in jeopardy because of potential Governor action on a low carbon fuel standard.”
The Cascade Bicycle Club, a major presence in Seattle politics, told its members in an e-mail Tuesday, “While we applaud the governor’s commitment to combating climate change, it should not come at the cost of all of the funding for bicycling he and the legislature just approved.”
If Inslee backs off his LCFS threat, a ballot initiative remains a possibility for supporters.
After more than two years of negotiations, the Democrat-led House and Republican-led Senate reached agreement on a new transportation package this month. Business and labor leaders strongly backed the package, which will eventually raise gas taxes by 11.9 cents a gallon.
Like all state transportation packages, the projects are spread around to attract more legislative votes. Most agree, though, that the projects funded will help the economy and shorten commutes. They include:
- Finishing the North Spokane Corridor to I-90
- Easing traffic backups at Joint Base Lewis-McChord
- Connecting the Port of Tacoma to SR 167
- Improving I-405
- Finishing the 520 bridge project on the Seattle side
Package prevents exec. order on LCFS
One of the most contentious parts of the package for House Democrats was the “poison pill” insisted on by Senate Republicans that prevents Gov. Jay Inslee from instituting a low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) by executive order. Inslee made no secret that he wanted an LCFS. Opponents to the idea say LCFS programs are environmentally ineffective and raise gas prices with little to show in benefits.
While the provision prevents singular action by Inslee, the Legislature could still pass an LCFS, though in its current makeup that is a remote possibility. But in a state with direct democracy via initiatives, the voters can pass any law themselves, same as the Legislature.
Will supporters try an initiative?
That has some wondering if supporters will try to place an LCFS initiative on the ballot. Already, an environmental group is trying to place a revenue-neutral carbon tax on the ballot next year. In the past, environmental initiatives have done well on the ballot, including the anti-nuclear waste I-297 (which was thrown out by the courts) in 2004 and 2006’s renewable energy initiative, I-937.
Of course, those initiatives weren’t perceived to have a direct, immediate cost to consumers. Opponents of an LCFS would be sure Washington voters knew an LCFS program would cost them money. That factor could have LCFS supporters wondering if a ballot initiative is such a good idea.