Steven Walters: Senate gets plan requiring 'supermajority' to raise taxes

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Steven Walters
Monday, February 17, 2014

Saying a state law requiring two-thirds—or “supermajority”—votes by both houses of the Legislature to raise income or sales taxes is not tough enough, Assembly Republicans last week voted to add it to the state constitution.

Because that law could easily be repealed, if Democrats again ran the Capitol, Republicans said writing a supermajority into the constitution would be a much more permanent lock on taxation. It takes four or five years to amend the constitution.

Assembly Joint Resolution 79 would amend the state constitution to require two-thirds votes by each house of the Legislature—or passage of a statewide advisory referendum—to increase individual or corporate income taxes or the 5 percent state sales tax. If approved, this would be the biggest change in tax policy since a Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR, was drafted but never voted on.

Under the change, raising taxes would take votes from 66 of the 99 Assembly members and 22 of the 33 senators. Lawmakers are not likely to put this question before voters: Do you want to raise the income or sales tax you pay?

But the so-called “supermajority” requirement is a long way from becoming law.

The Assembly's 60-39 party-line vote—Republicans yes, Democrats no—was just the first of many steps for the change. It dies, for example, if the state Senate doesn't also endorse it in the next few weeks.

If the Senate does move it forward this year, the same change must be approved by the 2015-16 session of the Legislature and, finally, by a statewide referendum.

Whether or not you support the change, it's a big deal.

One reason why: None of the major tax increases the Legislature approved over the last 32 years got two-thirds “yes” votes.

Had there been a supermajority requirement in the 1980s, state government—and the education, health care, public safety and local government services it pays for—would be radically different.

Records show:

— On April 23, 1982, the state Senate “temporarily” voted 18-11 to raise taxes to avoid slashing services, after the economy crashed. That raised the sales tax from 4 percent to 5 percent, where it has been ever since.

— On that same day, the tax-increase vote in the Assembly was 54-44, also short of a two-thirds majority.

Republican Gov. Lee Dreyfus requested those surtaxes.

— On Jan. 5, 1983—days after Democrat Tony Earl became governor—the “temporary” sales tax increase was made permanent on a 17-13 Senate vote and a 52-45 Assembly vote.

But Democratic Sen. Tim Cullen, who also served the Senate in the 1980s, noted that the Legislature repealed the 1982 temporary income surtax enacted one year later. And, he added, “everybody knew” when the sales tax was raised from 4 percent to 5 percent in 1982 that it would be permanent.

Cullen is against adding a supermajority to raise taxes to the state constitution, saying it would “tie our hands” and prevent lawmakers from “doing our jobs.”

“There's been a drumbeat out there: 'All government is a waste. Starve the beast,'” Cullen added. “There's no two-thirds requirement to cut taxes.”

— On June 26, 2009, Senate Democrats mustered 17 votes—the minimum required—to pass the 2009-11 budget that raised individual income taxes. Fourteen Republican senators and one Democrat, who lost his re-election bid in 2010, voted against that budget.

— Later that day, Assembly Democrats passed the same budget, 51-46.

In Assembly debate, Republicans said the constitutional change would protect taxpayers.

GOP Rep. Dean Knudson, its lead sponsor, said state government has “fearsome, awesome” taxation powers.

“Government has an insatiable appetite for revenues,” added Knudson. “(AJR79) is a tool to tame the tax monster.”

The two-thirds majority to raise taxes is now a law but not part of the constitution.

Republican Rep. Dan Knodl said the 2011 supermajority law requiring a supermajority is not enough, since laws can easily be repealed—or watered down. And campaign promises to cut spending are worthless, Knodl added.

But Assembly Democrats said democracy should continue to work this way: Whoever gets one more vote than the opponent wins.

Milwaukee Democrat Even Goyke said a hungry man goes through his garbage can searching for food scraps. That reminds him he was elected to “look out for the weakest among us” and, if necessary, ask “the richest among us” to pay higher taxes.

Milwaukee Democrat Fred Kessler said Nevada, with a supermajority requirement, has a high school graduation rate of only 62 percent—last among all states. Wisconsin's high school graduation rate is 88 percent, he noted.

In Nevada, mining, casino and other special-interest groups block tax increases, Kessler said. As a result, “They can't pass enough money to fund education.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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