Washington State sales tax held hostage

Conditional legislation holds the fate of the Washington state sales tax

Washington voters recently approved an unusual ballot initiative which effectively holds the state sales tax hostage unless legislators propose a separate constitutional amendment related to future tax increases. Assuming the initiative survives an ongoing court challenge, the Washington legislature has until next April to approve a second referendum for the 2016 election. Otherwise, residents will see an immediate 1% cut in the statewide sales tax.

state sales taxMany states allow voters to enact legislation directly through an initiative process. In Washington, voters may initiate ordinary legislation but not amendments to the state’s constitution, which must be proposed by the legislature. This has frustrated efforts by anti-tax activists in the state to legislate a “supermajority” requirement for tax increases. A “supermajority” means each house of the Washington legislature would have to approve any future tax increase by a two-thirds vote rather than a simple majority. Although voters have passed a number of supermajority initiatives in recent years, they have either been suspended by the legislature or struck down as unconstitutional by the Washington Supreme Court. In a 2013 decision, the court held any supermajority rule required a constitutional amendment.

Since the legislature will not approve such an amendment on its own, supermajority proponents switched tactics. They proposed a new initiative, I-1366, which mandates a 1% cut in the state sales tax – reducing it from 6.5% to 5.5% – unless the legislature “first proposes” an amendment to the state constitution which would “require that for any tax increase, either the voters approve the increase or two-thirds of each house of the legislature approve the increase.” The initiative sets an April 15, 2016, for the legislature to act.

In the recent Nov. 3 election, Washington voters approved I-1366 by a margin of about 45,000 votes. But that does not mean the controversial measure will become law. Opponents of the law, including many local governments, have already filed a lawsuit challenging the initiative’s constitutionality. Specifically, opponents claim I-1366 is “beyond the scope of the people’s initiative power.” This past August, a Seattle judge declined to remove the measure from the ballot. On Sept. 4, the Washington Supreme Court upheld that decision.

The Supreme Court did not settle the underlying constitutional challenge to I-1366. Rather, it held the purpose of the measure was “not sufficiently clear” enough to warrant injunctive relief before the election. The lack of clarity refers to the dispute over what I-1366 actually proposes. Opponents argue it is an improper attempt to amend the state constitution by initiative. But proponents claim it is merely “conditional legislation” whose primary purpose is to cut the sales tax.

Indeed, conditional legislation is a common governmental practice. Congress often uses such legislation to condition federal funds on certain acts by states or private parties. For example, states raised their legal drinking age to 21 after Congress made it a condition for continuing to receive federal highway funds. But this is likely the first time a voter initiative has conditioned a state’s ability to collect taxes on a future legislative action.

S.M. Oliva is a writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. He edits the international legal blog PrivyCouncil.info