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Super-majority tax law struck down in Washington state

By Laura L. Myers

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Washington state's Supreme Court made it easier for lawmakers to raise taxes on Thursday, striking down as unconstitutional a voter-approved law that required a two-thirds majority of the state legislature to approve such increases.

In a 6-3 vote, the court ruled against an initiative launched by conservative political activist Tim Eyman and twice approved by voters, most recently in November, to require a super-majority to raise taxes.

The court instead decided that half of the state's lawmakers, plus one, or a simple majority, could vote to increase taxes in the cash-strapped Pacific Northwest state, which collects no personal income tax.

"Our holding today is not a judgment on the wisdom of requiring a super-majority for the passage of tax legislation," the court ruled in its majority opinion. "Should the people and the legislature still wish to require a super majority vote for tax legislation, they must do so through constitutional amendment, not through legislation."

The ruling came as the state faces court-imposed mandates to fully fund basic K-12 public education, with a total of $4.5 billion needed by 2019, beginning with $1.4 billion from 2013 to 2015, according to the Washington State Budget & Policy Center.

Lawmakers are also grappling with a $1 billion deficit and transportation infrastructure problems.

The League of Education Voters, a plaintiff in the case, called the ruling a "huge win for kids and schools," and Democratic Governor Jay Inslee hailed the ruling as protection for the state's constitution.

"The supermajority requirement gave a legislative minority the power to squelch ideas even when those ideas had majority support," Inslee said in an emailed statement.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn also applauded the ruling for a "common sense" approach "to fully fund education and invest in our transportation system."

But Republican state Senator Pam Roach of Auburn warned the ruling could open "the floodgates of taxation."

A proposal for a permanent state constitutional amendment to require a two-thirds super-majority was expected to pass a committee in the Republican-dominated Senate later on Thursday, Roach said.

"We have a lot of pent-up tax bills from last session. We know what's in the offing. Those tax bills are likely to begin to pass, but probably not in this session," Roach told Reuters.

Eyman, who did not immediately return calls by Reuters, launched the initiatives to stay ahead of potential tax increases.

(Reporting by Laura L. Myers; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Andre Grenon)

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