Republicans Push for “Supermajority” on Tax Hikes
Constitutional amendment requiring two-thirds majority could radically change state government.
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Because that law could easily be repealed if Democrats again ran the Capitol, Republicans said writing a supermajority into the Constitution would assure a more permanent clamp on taxation. It takes at least four years — and two election cycles — to amend the Constitution.
Assembly Joint Resolution 79 would require two-thirds votes by both the Senate and Assembly – or passage of a statewide advisory referendum – to increase individual or corporate income taxes or the 5 percent state sales tax. It would require votes from 66 of the 99 Assembly members, and 22 of the 33 senators, to raise taxes.
The provision allowing a statewide advisory referendum doesn’t add much wiggle room as lawmakers are unlikely to put this question before voters: Do you want to raise the income or sales tax you pay?
But the supermajority is a long way from becoming part of the Constitution. The Assembly’s 60-39 party-line vote – Republicans yes, Democrats no – was the first of many steps. It dies, for example, if the state Senate doesn’t also endorse it in the next few weeks. Then, if the Senate moves it forward this year, the same change must be approved by the 2015-16 session of the Legislature and, finally, by a statewide referendum.
Passage of the amendment is a big deal because 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 programs it pays for — would be radically different.
*On April 23, 1982, the state Senate “temporarily” voted 18-11 to raise taxes to avoid slashing services, after the economy crashed. The vote in the Assembly was 54-44. That added an income tax surtax and raised the sales tax from 4 percent to 5 percent, where it’s been ever since. Those surtaxes were requested by Republican Gov. Lee Dreyfus.
*On Jan. 5, 1983 – days after Democrat Tony Earl became governor – the “temporary” sales tax increases was made permanent on 17-13 Senate, and 52-45 Assembly, votes.
But Democratic Sen. Tim Cullen, who also served as a senator in the 1980s, said the Legislature repealed the 1982 temporary income surtax enacted one year later. As for the sales tax, he adds, “everybody knew” when it was raised to 5 percent in 1982 that it would be permanent.
Cullen is against adding a supermajority to raise taxes to the constitution, saying it would “tie our hands” and prevent lawmakers from doing their jobs. “There’s been a right-wing drumbeat out there: ‘All government is a waste. Starve the beast’,” Cullen adds. But the proposed amendment is one-sided, he argues, as “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 state budget that raised individual income taxes. Fourteen Republican senators, and one Democrat who defeated in the 2010 election, voted against that budget. Later that day, Assembly Democrats passed the same budget by just 51-46.
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 their 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% – last among all states. Wisconsin’s high school graduation rate is 88%, he noted.
In Nevada, mining, casino and other special-interest groups block tax increases, Kessler said. As a result, he added, “They can’t pass enough money to fund education.”
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email firstname.lastname@example.org