Like most people, Jamison Anderson doesn’t spend a lot time thinking about the machinery of municipal government. But when he was asked to sign a ballot-measure petition to require at least a two-thirds majority — 5-2 — of the Yakima City Council to raise taxes, he didn’t hesitate to sign.
“As the people, we have to draw back some of the power,” said Anderson, 28.
That’s the sort of intuitive message that the petition’s backers — Citizens for Two-Thirds — are hoping to draw upon in getting the proposed city charter amendment on the November ballot.
If it passes, it might not necessarily mean big changes. The council rarely raises a tax by a 4-3 vote, and the group behind the measure isn’t accusing the council of running up taxes in Yakima.
“It’s more of a philosophical issue. We don’t like taxes,” said Bruce Smith, one of the group’s organizers and publisher of the Yakima Valley Business Times. “It’s real simple: We’re making it harder for City Council to raise taxes.”
The group, whose organizers include two city councilmen — Bill Lover and Rick Ensey — and local property developer Ben Shoval, is about halfway to getting the roughly 4,400 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. It’s using a combination of paid workers and volunteers to gather signatures, Shoval said.
Shoval and Smith also helped lead the unsuccessful 2011 ballot measure to create a strong-mayor form of government in Yakima.
Measures requiring a two-thirds majority to raise taxes have been approved in the past year by voters in Pierce County and Spokane. Last November, state voters approved an initiative requiring a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature to increase taxes. The state Supreme Court overturned the initiative in February, ruling that any supermajority requirement on the Legislature could only be adopted as an amendment to the state Constitution. The measures in Pierce County and Spokane have stood because they changed their respective city and county charters.
Supermajorities are often popular with voters, but some argue that they essentially allow minority rule. Others contend they are an important tool for discouraging government’s incentive to spend.
While making it harder to raise taxes, a two-thirds system also empowers a minority to dictate city policy, said Melissa Schwartzberg, a political science professor at Columbia University.
“A supermajority is basically minority rule,” she said.
Whether that is a good or bad depends on your view of the minority.
Supermajority requirements could empower the wealthy to block new taxation supported by the majority, Schwartzberg said.
“Supermajorities weight votes unequally,” she said, meaning that a no vote counts for more than a yes vote.
That is useful in things like jury decisions and changes to the Bill of Rights, but it is unnecessary for local public policy, including taxation, Schwartzberg said. “Policy should be more flexible to be able to meet the felt need of residents.”
That is one reason why Councilman Dave Ettl opposed a council resolution proposed by Lover earlier this year to send a similar charter amendment to voters.
“If you sign on to be on City Council, you have to be prepared to do your job, and have to have at your disposal all the tools of governance,” Ettl said.
And the current council has used those tools responsibly, he said.
But “the incentive on people (in government and elected office) to spend is greater than the incentive to not spend,” said John McGinnis, a constitutional law professor at Northwestern University’s School of Law in Chicago.
To equalize the incentives, McGinnis said, we should make it harder to increase spending.
Applying the supermajority requirement directly to spending legislation is the most effective approach, but putting it on taxes also works, especially for state and local government, which can’t carry budget deficits like the federal government, he said.
Even with supermajority requirements for new taxes, elected officials can still sometimes approve spending increases to be financed with increased fees, bond sales and other methods, he said.
However, those options often have restrictions, such as bonds, which in Washington are capped at $5 million if approved by a city council. Voters can approve larger bonds, but need more than 60 percent to pass.
State and local governments already have a strong incentive to keep taxes low, several experts say.
“If you spend a lot of money and raise taxes, your businesses are more likely to go away,” McGinnis said.
As the country has grappled with the Great Recession and a slow recovery, supermajority requirements have become increasingly popular, especially at the state level, said Jac Heckelman, an economics professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
While supermajorities can keep a lid on tax increases, they can also lead to tough choices — cutting public services or funding them with bonds, Heckelman said. Voters should consider “which is less problematic for them: higher taxes, lower spending or greater debt?”