Members of the Pasco City Council recently debated whether they should require a supermajority vote of the council to raise taxes.
Though the policy wasn’t ultimately enacted, the council indicated it would consider this popular taxpayer protection again when the new city council members take office in 2018.
Not only should Pasco act on this taxpayer protection, but Kennewick and Richland should as well.
Here’s why: A 2014 poll found that 63 percent of Washingtonians want greater taxpayer protection at the local level.
This is no surprise considering voters in Washington have enacted or affirmed a two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases in the state legislature six times during the past 20 years. In 2012, Initiative 1185 passed statewide with a 64 percent “yes” vote. The initiative passed with majority approval in 44 of the state’s 49 legislative districts and in every county of the state.
Tri-City voters have also overwhelming supported requiring a supermajority for taxes when they have had a chance to vote on it.
Seventy percent of voters in the 9th Legislative District, 71 percent of voters in the 16th Legislative District and 73 percent of voters in the 8th Legislative District approved Initiative 1185 in 2012.
Currently Pierce County and the cities of Spokane, Spokane Valley and Yakima provide this protection for taxpayers.
Seventeen states across the country also require a supermajority vote in the legislature to raise taxes.
Some states even require voter approval for tax increases. In Michigan, for example, local lawmakers are subject to the Headlee Amendment, which requires voter approval of all tax increases at the state and local level. In Colorado, voter approval is required of all tax increases before they can become law.
Opponents of this type of taxpayer protection say such requirements are undemocratic.
Supermajority requirements, however, are a routine part of all democratic governing systems. They exist at the federal, state and local levels and are a common feature of democratic government in other countries. Washington state’s constitution contains more than 20 supermajority requirements.
The framers of both the Washington state constitution and the U.S. Constitution did not believe supermajority requirements are unfair or undemocratic.
They placed them throughout those documents, believing a higher level of agreement was needed for certain public decisions. In fact, legislators have often changed their own rules and adopted higher vote requirements.
In Pasco a concern was raised that it might adversely affect the city’s bond rating and that it was not working as intended in Spokane Valley.
Based on the credit ratings for the 17 states that have a supermajority for tax increases protection, other factors dictate the credit rating. The ratings ranged from a high of Aaa in Delaware to a low of Aa3 in California.
Spokane Valley Mayor Rod Higgins also disagrees with the criticism of his city’s protection for taxpayers saying, “When the Spokane Valley City Council decided to adopt a supermajority for the passage of a future tax increase, it had no specific project on the agenda. It was a political statement, designed to fulfill campaign promises made that any increase in existing taxes would only be considered as a last option.”
Mayor Higgins continued, “It was initiated as a protection from imprudent overreach, and has thus far stood us in good stead.”
This statement should hold true for all lawmakers, including those in Kennewick, Pasco and Richland.
By approving a supermajority requirement for tax increases, local government officials would simply be stating a policy preference that they want a higher level of policy agreement before increasing the financial burden they impose on citizens.
Supermajority vote requirements do not make increasing taxes impossible as demonstrated by Spokane; it simply requires lawmakers to reach greater consensus or ask city voters for approval before raising taxes.
Since more than 70 percent of voters in the Tri-Cities supported this requirement the last time it was on the ballot, requiring a higher vote threshold before our taxes are increased is clearly popular.
It is our hope members of the Kennewick, Pasco and Richland city councils will follow the lead of Pierce County, Spokane, Spokane Valley and Yakima and adopt similar protections for local taxpayers.
Jason Mercier is the Government Reform director for Washington Policy Center, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization with offices in Tri-Cities, Spokane, Seattle and Olympia. Online at www.washingtonpolicy.org.