As Florida voters consider a supermajority vote requirement for tax increases, some question whether it really matters

Florida voters will determine the fate of a supermajority vote requirement for new and increased taxes this November. As Governing magazine reports, the campaign is being closely watched. 

The push has drawn national attention because it comes as some are predicting a wave of Democratic victories this fall that could pull state policy more to the left. Opponents of the proposed Florida constitutional amendment — which would require 60 percent voter approval to pass — say Republican lawmakers put this on the November ballot to “stack the deck” against any Democrats taking office after them.

Washington has had its own experience with supermajority requirements in the past. Voters here passed Initiative 1053, which required a supermajority vote for tax hikes, in 2010. As the Washington Research Council wrote at the time,

Initiative 1053, the “Save The 2/3’s Vote For Tax Increases Act of 2010” will look familiar to Washington voters. They’ve passed something like it three times before.

The initiative would essentially reinstate two parts of Initiative 960, which was approved by voters in 2007…

Prior to I-960, Washington voters also approved the two-thirds majority vote requirement for tax increases in 1993 (I-601) and 1998 (Referendum 49).

The state Supreme Court ruled that voters could not impose the requirement on the Legislature. In 2013, as the Spokesman-Review reported, the court struck down I-1053.

For months, legislators have waited anxiously for the Washington Supreme Court to answer a political question that has roiled the state for two decades: Can voters make them pass any tax increase with a two-thirds majority?

No, a divided court said Thursday, not without a constitutional amendment.

And, of course, Washingtonians cannot amend the constitution by initiative. A subsequent 2015 end-run, I-1336, also failed to pass constitutional muster. That measure would have cut the sales tax by one percentage point unless the Legislature put a constitutional amendment requiring a supermajority vote before the voters. There was more, but that’s the gist. (The state Senate tried to impose a supermajority requirement on itself in 2015, but the rule was rejected by the then-Senate presiding officer, Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen, who cited the 2013 Supreme Court ruling).

As Governing reports,

A total of 14 states impose some kind of supermajority requirement — two-thirds, three-fourths or three-fifths of the legislature — to raise taxes and revenue.

The National Conference of State Legislatures as a state-by-state list.

With all the politics and controversy attending such requirements, there’s some question about the degree to which they make a difference. Again, from Governing:

The prevailing argument for supermajorities is that they keep taxes low. The evidence doesn’t necessarily bear that out. California, for instance, has a supermajority requirement and has some of the highest income tax rates in the country.

What’s more, research from the progressive-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has found no long-term average difference in tax rates between states with supermajority requirements and states with no such requirements.

And while critics from the left may be seen as having a vested interest in challenging the effectiveness of the requirements, the Tax Foundation also has its doubts. 

The conservative-leaning Tax Foundation’s Joseph Henchman isn’t surprised that research shows supermajorities have little effect. “If you have a state that’s reliably conservative, they’re not going to go wild on spending [in the first place],” he says. “I think [the supermajority requirement] is more of a protection that’s built in.”

We recommend the article. These things do tend to come around again, though there’s no sign Washington will be considering a constitutional amendment anytime soon.