Lt. Gov. Owen says two-thirds rule for new tax bills in Senate is unconstitutional


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OLYMPIA, Washington — A Senate rule to make it harder for that chamber to take action on new taxes is unconstitutional, according to a ruling issued Monday by Lt. Gov. Brad Owen.

Owen's decision negates the rule that required a two-thirds vote of the Senate before any bill that creates a new tax can advance to the chamber floor for a final vote. Owen, who, as president of the Senate serves as the presiding officer of the chamber, said the rule went against a 2013 state Supreme Court ruling that struck down an initiative-passed law requiring the legislative supermajority for tax hikes.

Owen noted he generally does not rule on constitutional issues, but said "that reluctance does not apply when the body steps outside the limitations established by the constitution or Supreme Court, either through the adoption of rules or consideration of other legislation in a manner or form that allows the Senate itself to act unconstitutionally."

"The president has previously stated the Senate cannot pass a rule that violates the state Constitution," he said. "Perhaps that statement should be clarified to read, the Senate may adopt an unconstitutional rule, but the President will not enforce it."

Owen's decision came as part of a larger debate over an effort to move a bill to raise the state's gas tax. Minority Democrats raised the challenge Friday, saying that the bill was a tax that should fall under the new chamber rule.

Owen first ruled that the gas tax bill, because it had some fees that qualified as new taxes, would need the higher vote threshold of 33 votes before coming to a floor vote. Democratic Sen. Steve Hobbs then asked Owen to rule on the constitutionality of the rule itself. The Senate went on and voted in favor of a $15 billion transportation revenue package that includes an incremental gas tax increase of 11.7 cents over the next three years.

Sen. Michael Baumgartner, a Republican from Spokane, said he was disappointed with the ruling, and said that there was ongoing discussion within his caucus about whether Owen was constitutionally able to make such a ruling.

"The intent of what we did when we made that rule was to make new taxes a last resort," he said in comments made from the chamber floor. "And I think this body moves better when new taxes are a last resort."

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