Initiative 1185 can help keep lawmakers in check

October 21, 2012 

Tim Eyman is back with another initiative that would require a two-thirds majority in the Legislature or a direct vote of the people to raise taxes. Given the success of virtually identical measures in the past 20 years, it's the surest bet on the ballot.

We've opposed similar measures in the past, chiefly because the two-thirds requirement sets the hurdle so high that new state revenues aren't just more difficult to obtain, but nearly impossible.

The requirement means a bloc of 17 state senators can block any tax, regardless of the circumstances. While that's fine with those who oppose every new tax no matter what, it increases the chances lawmakers will shirk their responsibility to invest in education, transportation systems, economic development and other activities necessary to build a sound economic future.

But despite our reservations, we're recommending voters approve Initiative 1185 this year. Legislators in this past session approved some needed reforms in state government that may never have passed if a simple majority could have raised taxes instead.

It forced a bipartisan approach to resolving the state's budget deficit, with results that put the state on much improved fiscal track and proved the value of political compromise.

Voters have imposed the two-thirds requirement on the Legislature four times before -- in 1993, 1998, 2007 and 2010. The mandate has forced lawmakers to stand up to special interests and make some tough decisions.

The multiple votes come because a simple majority of the Legislature can change or revoke any initiative after two years. Without a constitutional amendment, voters must periodically reaffirm their desire to impose the two-thirds requirement on tax increases.

The approach has been successful in keeping the growth of state government in check, and the positive results prompted us to change our minds about Eyman's perennial initiative to make it tougher to raise taxes.

But our support comes with a caveat. Raising the bar isn't the state's answer to Grover Norquist's no-tax pledge that has helped cripple Congress. We expect state lawmakers to be more responsible than their counterparts in Washington, D.C. No one wants to see the Legislature embroiled in the same sort of gridlock that's paralyzed Congress and pushed the nation to the edge of a fiscal cliff.

That means lawmakers, especially the fiscally conservative bloc of Republicans representing Eastern Washington, must be open to new revenues to fund government programs.

Washington can't keep shifting the cost of higher education onto families without pricing the middle class out of the market.

And the McCleary ruling on K-12 funding makes it clear the courts will mandate additional state money for public schools. How much money isn't clear, but another $1 billion isn't out of the question.

It's not enough to mouth support for education during the campaign season. Legislators must figure out a way to pay for it, too.

We know fiscal conservatives from the Mid-Columbia can back a tax increase if the need justifies the additional burden on taxpayers. Rep. Larry Haler and Sen. Mike Hewitt, for example, have both supported higher gas taxes.

Those were brave votes in Eastern Washington, where anti-tax sentiments and long driving distances make higher gas prices particularly unpopular.

But they were responsible votes, raising money needed to ensure safe roads for motorists and transportation routes for Mid-Columbia products.

When I-1185 passes, as we're betting it will, lawmakers must continue to seek a responsible balance between meeting the state's needs and holding down costs.

We believe our lawmakers are up to the challenge.

The Herald editorial board recommends voters approve Initiative 1185.

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