When the legislature enacts bad laws or a court decides a case the wrong way, some people get angry. They grumble and complain, venting on the Internet or in a telephone call or two. Others, like Tim Eyman in the state of Washington, do something about it.
For 16 years, Mr. Eyman and his group, Voters Want More Choices, have bedeviled politicians in the state capital at Olympia with tax-limitation proposals, and several of them have been enacted in one of the most liberal of the states. Five times, the public has been asked whether state legislators should be enabled to raise taxes only with a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature, and five times the public has agreed, each time by a wider margin than the last. In 2012, the initiative passed with 64 percent of the vote.
For this, Mr. Eyman’s likeness appears in “Wanted” posters in the lobby of every liberal activist group in the state, because he’s cutting off their access to other people’s money. He calculates his initiatives have saved residents $26 billion so far. Last February, when the Washington Supreme Court declared tax-limitation initiatives unconstitutional, a collective sigh of relief raised the Capitol dome by two full inches. The Northwest Progressive Institute cheered online: “Oh, happy day!”
The high court majority said the only way a voter initiative could impose a supermajority requirement for passing tax bills would be through a constitutional amendment. Otherwise, “a simple majority of the people or the legislature,” the court majority reasoned, “could require particular bills to receive 90 percent approval rather than just two-thirds approval, thus essentially ensuring that those types of bills would never pass. Such a result is antithetical to the notion of a functioning government and should be rejected as such.”
Since only the Legislature can put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, the majority’s six justices hung up their robes for the night confident that such could never happen. They had finally stuck it to Tim Eyman.
On Monday, Mr. Eyman responded with a ballot initiative that’s an ultimatum to Olympia: Either put a tax-limitation amendment on the ballot, or we the people will cut our own taxes. If approved, the measure would slice 1 percentage point from the state sales tax, depriving the state of $1 billion in revenue. If the Legislature refers a constitutional amendment to the ballot by April 15, 2015, there wouldn’t be a cut.
Money is the universal language of lawmakers. “If they don’t want to let us vote,” Mr. Eyman tells The Washington Times, “then we get the biggest tax cut in Washington state history … . But it’s free if you let us vote.”
Whether it’s Congress or a city council or a homeowners association, all legislative bodies thrive on coercive enactments to change behavior. If the public doesn’t buy curlicue fluorescent light bulbs, they’ll pass laws banning bulbs that work. Each time Washington’s voters enacted a tax-limitation bill, a misbehaving Legislature came up with a loophole. If Mr. Eyman succeeds with his latest ploy, this would be a permanent fix.
The initiative is further a needed splash of cold water in the face of the court. In his dissent from the court majority’s decision, Justice James M. Johnson predicted this day would come. “If the history of this great state can teach us anything, it is this: The power of the people will prevail,” he wrote. “If the legislature passes a tax the people oppose, the people will find a way to repeal it.” And so they have, and we raise a glass of leftover bubbly to salute Mr. Eyman.