Opinion

I-601’s provisions violate state constitution

The people who wrote our state constitution were pretty smart. They had watched other western states adopt constitutions — some better than others — and they were very savvy about how to write a constitution that protects the public interest.

Because of their good work in 1889, our state-owned lands have not been sold off at a fraction of their value, as they were in many other states.

Because of their wisdom about abuses of power, we have nine separately elected state officials who are accountable to voters.

Amending our state constitution is hard — as it should be. It requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate, followed by a majority vote of the people of the state.

Our constitution cannot be amended by passing an initiative or by passing a bill in the Legislature. Initiatives and bills create statutes, not constitutional amendments.

But many constitutional scholars believe — and I agree — that one part of Initiative 601, passed by the voters in 1993, violates our constitution.

That initiative required the Legislature to pass any tax increase by a two-thirds majority rather than a simple majority.

Our state constitution clearly states that bills pass the Legislature by a simple majority. A handful of exceptions are written into the constitution, but raising taxes is not one of them.

Now this unconstitutional provision of Initiative 601 has been renewed and expanded by last year’s passage of Initiative 960.

Two weeks ago, we were presented with an opportunity to ask the Washington Supreme Court to rule on this constitutional question.

The state Senate passed a bill reinstating a surcharge on liquor that had expired, with the revenue to be used for substance abuse treatment and DUI enforcement.

The bill was passed by a simple majority, but Lt. Gov. Brad Owen refused to send it on to the House for passage because it violated a provision of Initiative 960 that requires a two-thirds vote for tax increases.

I filed the constitutional challenge of this ruling not because I’m worried about the future of the state’s budget, but because I’m worried about the future of our state constitution.

I know that we are in uncertain economic times, and that next biennium might be difficult for us. But that’s not the point. Our economy will always have its ups and downs, but the integrity of our constitution should be constant.

It is the foundation on which all our laws must be built. Respect for the constitution should rise above partisan differences or the quest for rhetorical advantage.

I am not challenging the many other provisions of either I-601 or I-960, such as legislative votes on state agency fee increases, public advisory votes on new taxes and the cap on state spending increases.

Contrary to what some assert, I do respect the will of the voters.

In fact, in 1993, when Democrats raised taxes more than the public wanted us to, the voters booted a lot of Democrats out of office in the next election.

We remember that vividly – and we learned from it. And one of the lessons we learned is that our constitution gives the people of this state the last word, as it has since 1889.

That is as it should be — and as it should remain.

Our state Supreme Court didn’t agree to an expedited ruling so that we could revisit the liquor tax bill this year.

This means we won’t get a snap decision when it does take up this issue.

I’m pleased the court will hear the case thoroughly and completely, and I hope it will affirm the wisdom of those 75 elected delegates who traveled to Olympia in the summer of 1889 to craft our constitution.

They wrote one of the most populist state constitutions in the country, and that’s a legacy we ought to honor and protect.

State Sen. Lisa Brown (D-Spokane) is the Senate majority leader and represents Washington’s 3rd District.

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