Battle over Washington State Spending Limits Law Continues in Court

Battle over Washington State Spending Limits Law Continues in Court
September 1, 2005

Jason Mercier

Jason Mercier is director of the Center for Government Reform for the Washington Policy Center. (read full bio)

Four days after the Washington Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit asking to protect voters' right to file a referendum on legislative actions, groups representing Washington State taxpayers filed a new lawsuit to preserve tax and spending limits approved in Initiative 601.

The new suit, filed July 19, asks the court to invalidate new taxes that were passed on April 16 without a vote of the people, as is required under a section of I-601 that remains in place. The suit also asks the court to invalidate Senate Bill 6078, which scrapped the requirement for a two-thirds majority vote to raise taxes.

Legislative Tactic Criticized

Another portion of the lawsuit accuses the legislature of shifting $250 million from one account to another for the sole purpose of artificially increasing the state's adopted expenditure limit. The suit also alleges SB 6078 is unconstitutional because it amends certain provisions of I-601 without spelling them out in the new law.

"The constitution is very plain--the legislature cannot leave a law on the books and change it at the same time. Otherwise you have, as is the case here, two conflicting laws," said Dan Wood, government relations director of the Washington Farm Bureau.

Plaintiffs in the new lawsuit include the Washington Farm Bureau, National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), Washington State Grange, Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW), Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EFF), and Washington Association of REALTORS®.

Named in the lawsuit are Gov. Christine Gregoire (D), the expenditure limit committee, and the State of Washington.

'Emergency' Wording

Lawmakers had blocked a potential referendum on SB 6078 by declaring the law an emergency. Without the emergency clause, SB 6078 would not have taken effect until 90 days after the session ended, and citizens could have tried to gather enough signatures to force a statewide vote in November. Instead, the law took effect upon the governor's signature in April.

By a 6-3 margin, the state supreme court on July 14 ruled in Washington State Farm Bureau Federation et al. v. Sam Reed that the legislature can declare nearly anything it wants to be an "emergency," thereby negating the chance for a vote of the people.

The majority opinion, by Justice Charles Johnson, relied predominantly on past opinions where the court gave deference to the legislature in determining what is an emergency.

"The Washington State Constitution and our jurisprudence dictate that the Legislature may suspend the right of the people to order a referendum on a bill where the bill is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or in support of state government and its existing public institutions," Johnson wrote for the majority.

Precedent Cited, Disputed

Johnson also quoted part of the court's 1996 CLEAN vs. State decision, in which the court allowed an emergency clause to be attached to legislation to fund the Seattle Mariners baseball stadium.

"For this court to substitute its judgment for the legislature's in determining whether an emergency exists 'would be most unwise and would constitute a major assault on the historic balance of powers,'" Johnson wrote.

In his dissent, Justice Richard B. Sanders stated, "The majority betrays the sacred trust the people of this state place in this court to preserve inviolate their constitutional right to veto unwanted legislation through referendum. A legislature determined to inoculate itself from referendum, a secretary of state determined to violate his statutory and constitutional duty to allow a referendum petition to at least circulate, combined with a supreme court openly hostile to the people's check on the legislature, brews a potent poison to the people's constitutional role in the legislative process."

Taxpayer Protections Ignored

In 1993, voters approved Initiative 601, requiring a two-thirds vote of both houses to raise taxes. The initiative also limited state spending growth to inflation plus population growth.

"The people adopted I-601 to rein in the growth of state spending and tax increases, not to test the creativity of legislators in getting around the limits. If the court follows the money, it will see the $250 million in fund shifts is nothing more than a budget shell game designed to circumvent I-601's protections," said Bob Williams, president of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.


Jason Mercier (jmercier@effwa.org) is a budget research analyst for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.


For more information ...

Links to information about Initiative 601 and Washington State lawmakers' moves to avoid tax and spending limits are available at http://www.effwa.org/main/search.php. Type "Initiative 601" in the search field.

The opinions filed in Washington State Farm Bureau Federation et al. v. Sam Reed are available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute's free online research service. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and search for documents #17622 (majority and concurring opinions) and #17623 (dissenting opinions).

Jason Mercier

Jason Mercier is director of the Center for Government Reform for the Washington Policy Center. (read full bio)