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‘Supermajority’ votes are gaining traction

October 7, 2012

By SID SALTER

One product of the protracted economic downturn nationally has been an explosion of anti-tax legislation in state government. The purpose of the legislation is simply to make it structurally harder to raise taxes and to build those tax hike roadblocks into either state law or to the state constitution.

Michigan is one of the latest states to see such a battle play out.

In the Mississippi Legislature since 1970, lawmakers have to earn a three-fifths “supermajority” vote to pass a bill that raises revenue or enacts taxation. It’s a requirement of the Mississippi Constitution.

The adoption of general obligation bonds like those used for school construction and the like require 60 percent “supermajority” votes under Mississippi law as well. And the notion of “supermajority” votes likewise factor into the process of gubernatorial veto override votes.

Mississippi’s governor can veto legislation if he can garner enough support in the Legislature to stave off a three-fifths majority vote. But that power is tempered by judicial oversight. The landmark state Supreme Court ruling on gubernatorial vetoes in Mississippi came in 1989 when the court ruled that while the governor is authorized to veto “parts of an appropriation bill,” the veto must be related to items of “distinct appropriations.”

In the ruling, the court said the governor could not veto unwanted legislation on appropriation bills – saying in effect that the Legislature has the constitutional authority to place conditions on appropriations.

There are 16 other states – Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin – that have at least some applicable “supermajority” requirement for raising taxes.

Arizona, California, Colorado, Louisiana, Nevada, South Dakota and Washington all have two-thirds majority requirements. Delaware, Florida (at least for corporate income tax increases), Kentucky and Oregon require the same three-fifths “supermajority” as does Mississippi.

Michigan’s current “supermajority” requirement only applies to state property taxes, but voters there are about to decide Proposition 5, which would require a two-thirds “supermajority” to raise income, corporate, or other taxes.

In Michigan, opponents of the “supermajority” legislation say it will guarantee political gridlock, stymie economic development and hamstring government from raising necessary revenue. Proponents say the laws would make it harder for lawmakers to raise taxes and make the Michigan tax system more predictable.

In Mississippi, existing “supermajority” constitutional requirements have indeed made raising taxes at the state level more difficult and likewise have made the state’s tax system more predictable. But those rules have likewise not been an impediment to major economic development projects like Nissan and Toyota.

One interesting development in Michigan is that the “supermajority” legislation has made strange political bedfellows of business groups and labor unions.

The unintended consequence of “supermajority” tax laws is that they in truth empower minority coalitions who have learned to use the laws to play not to win, but to block. The result is that often the will of the majority of voters gets thwarted.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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