That requirement, which voters passed over and over again, has been a thorn for Democratic lawmakers for 20 years. (That’s not to say all Democrats want to raise taxes all the time: The two-thirds requirement didn’t just cover new taxes and tax increases, it also applied to ending tax exemptions, no matter how small or ineffective.)
That all brings us to this week's Capitol Newsmaker of the Week, which goes to the group of lawmakers – many freshmen in the House at the time—who set the stage to take down the supermajority requirement with a fateful late night vote in May 2011. I spoke with Sen. David Frockt (D-46, N. Seattle), one member of the group (he’s since moved to the Senate). Below is my conversation with Frockt, edited for length and organization.
Sen. David Frockt
PubliCola: So, does this pave the way to increase taxes this year?
I hope it doesn’t have ramifications against my party politically, but ... we ought to be able to govern and people will judge us in the electoral process.Frockt: No, it doesn’t make it easier to raise taxes. It’s difficult to do anything in Olympia, but give stuff away. I think this means we’re going to have a fair debate when there are policy options that come up. Republicans are even probably going to propose things in their budget that would have constituted a tax increase under Initiative 1053. As [Rep.] Jamie Pedersen [D-43, Seattle] pointed out yesterday, it might allow us to have a more open conversation about tax reform generally.
PubliCola: Take me back to how this got started – that freshmen would take on the challenge of getting the supermajority requirement before the Supreme Court.
Frockt: There were 11 of us freshmen Democrats elected in 2010. We were coming in facing a $3 billion deficit or more and it wasn’t even clear whether transportation and university fees qualified as taxes under Initiative 1053. We started talking over email about how to get clarity on this issue of the two-thirds requirement. A lot of people thought it was unconstitutional. The question was, how do you get it before the courts. We’d had two or three attempts previously where the court threw it out because the issue wasn’t properly before them. Eventually, we were charged by the leadership in the house to figure out a legal strategy – what was an ideal test case.
I just kept thinking, "You’ve got no idea what we’re up to."PubliCola: How did you settle on the bill to end a relatively small tax exemption for banks?
Frockt: We thought that would be an ideal vehicle because we thought we could get a majority to vote and it wasn’t a justified tax break by any stretch. At the time, Republicans were against ending it so we didn’t think we’d pick up their votes.
PubliCola: Tell me about taking that vote, which must have been the biggest moment of your (short) legislative career at the time?
Frockt: We didn’t want to tip anybody off about this vote, but we wanted to have Speaker [Rep. Frank] Chopp [D-43, Wallingford] preside over the House, which he doesn’t normally do. We felt that when the court was looking at this, we wanted it to be the speaker saying that his role isn’t to make Constitutional rulings. So we had him start presiding over votes a couple of days beforehand.
We did it at 10 o’clock at night – that’s when the House likes to take the tough votes. All the Republicans were really upset because they felt like they were having to take a vote on banks versus education. I don’t think they realized that the real game was that we were trying to make sure we set this lawsuit up.
I remember [then] Rep. Bill Hinkle [R-13, Cle elum], a retired Republican, got up and goes, ‘I just want to say that if our freshmen were doing a class project, it sure as hell wouldn’t be to raise taxes.’ It was actually very funny, but I just kept thinking, 'You’ve got no idea what we’re up to.'
After it was all over, I ran into Frank [Chopp] and he goes, “Well that was easier than I thought it was going to be.’
Then last year, about midway through session in the budget fight, all the sudden [Rep. Richard] DeBolt [R-20, Chehalis] and the Republicans came out in favor of closing the bank tax loophole. A group of us were convinced this was coming from people worried about this case who wanted to try to moot the case before the court -- if they could pass it, then argue this exemption is now closed, then there would be no point for the case to move forward.
For the court case, we had all these groups and other individuals who were recruited in. The thinking was, we’ll put a whole bunch of people forward and one of them will have legal standing. Ironically, the court held that the groups didn’t have standing because they couldn’t demonstrate any injury. They held that the legislators had injury because the requirement effectively diluted our votes.
PubliCola: What now?
Frockt: I feel gratified that we have a decision. How it plays out, we’ll see. I hope it doesn’t have ramifications against my party politically, but as a matter of Constitutional law, it’s correct. It’s the right thing. We ought to be able to govern and people will judge us in the electoral process.
For this session's previous Capitol Newsmakers of the Week start here. Not that we're keeping score, but the tally so far is three Democrats to three Republicans. (We didn't award a Newsmaker of the Week last week.)