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Supermajority requirements for long-term tax obligations are an important protection for taxpayers

If there’s one thing Americans can still agree on, it’s that tax policy is one of the most consequential decisions our government makes that impacts our economy and family budgets. This is true of not only legislatively imposed tax increases but also of those tax levies put before voters. Unfortunately, many elections suffer from low voter turnout, leaving these monumental tax decisions in the hands of a relatively small number of citizens. This is especially true for ‘special elections’ that are held throughout the year separately from the November general election when few voters are paying attention.

To counter the few from imposing a long-term tax obligation on the community without broad consensus, several states require supermajority votes for certain types of tax increases.

There are many good reasons to require a supermajority, even with voter approval, for bonds such as those for schools. Unlike normal levies, these bond obligations can extend for many years and the taxes can’t be repealed or reduced until that obligation is met. Most other tax levies can be changed or repealed at any time. This prevents tying the hands of future policymakers so they can respond to changing economic conditions.

The main exception to this flexibility, however, is for taxes pledged to bonds (long-term contractual obligations). Realizing the different nature of taxes for bonds versus normal operating expenses and wanting to prevent a small number of voters from imposing this type of long-term tax burden on a community, many constitutions across the country require these bond votes to secure a broad consensus.

Although several states require a 3/5 vote for school bonds (including neighboring Washington), Idaho is one of the few in the country with an exceptionally high requirement to secure a 2/3 vote of the people.

Some lawmakers in Idaho are discussing whether Idaho’s school bond requirement should be changed. As reported by the Idaho Statesman:

“[Rep.] Furniss said in an interview that lawmakers are discussing ways to reduce the vote threshold in elections when turnout is high. That way, bond measures wouldn’t fail with 65% support in high-turnout years — what would be a blowout election in any other race.”

Moving to a 3/5 vote requirement for school bonds, IF the election is required to be held at the November general for maximum voter turnout and involvement, is a discussion worth having. What shouldn’t happen is allowing ‘special elections’ with low voter turnout to increase the long-term tax obligation of a community.

One possible idea would be to give school districts a choice. They could use a special election and need to meet a 2/3 vote, or they could place the bond tax levy on the November general election and need to secure a 3/5 vote. It is false to say this will only make tax increases easier. In fact, in a higher turnout election, you’ll have to convince more voters that the tax increase is warranted. The goal is to allow the full voice of the community to be heard by making these tax decisions at the elections with the highest voter turnout.

As for normal operating levies that only need to meet a majority threshold, those too should be moved to the November general election. There is never a good argument to use a low-turnout election to ask the community to increase taxes on families and businesses.

While we have been primarily talking about tax levies sent to voters for approval, since this policy change for bonds would require a constitutional amendment, we should also ask lawmakers to make legislatively imposed taxes reach a broad consensus.

This is why Mountain States Policy Center is encouraging Idaho lawmakers to send voters a constitutional amendment that would require a legislative supermajority vote or voter approval for all tax increases.

As currently occurs in Oregon and Colorado, this type of policy could also be coupled with automatic tax rebate triggers based on revenue growth to help avoid the temptation of overheating a state budget and increasing the pressure for tax increases.

Whether requiring voter approval for all tax increases like in Colorado or needing a 2/3 legislative threshold as occurs in Florida, increasing the tax burden imposed on families and businesses should first require a broad consensus and always be the last resort when budgeting.

Long-term tax obligations should never be easy to impose, but Idaho’s current 2/3 vote requirement for school bonds, even with voter approval, is an exceedingly high threshold that should be reconsidered. By moving all tax levies to the November general election while still requiring a 3/5 vote for bonds, policymakers can encourage a robust tax discussion in the community to occur and secure a broad consensus before a long-term tax obligation is imposed.

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