MPR News Primer: Supermajority on raising taxesby Paul Tosto, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota's Constitution already requires a 60 percent vote of lawmakers -- a "supermajority" -- to borrow money. Some legislators say it should be equally as hard for the Legislature to raise taxes. Others worry that could damage Minnesota's long-term fiscal health. Voters this fall may get the chance to decide the question.
What's been proposed?
Some House Republicans want to make it harder for the Legislature to approve tax increases. Instead of the current simple majority voting yes, they want it written into the Minnesota Constitution that three-fifths of lawmakers must vote yes to approve new taxes.
While House Speaker Kurt Zellers supports the move, it hasn't come up for a legislative vote yet.
If voters approved the constitutional change, would every kind of tax require a three-fifths majority?
Not necessarily. It would definitely apply to individual income, general sales, and motor vehicle sales taxes and probably the corporate franchise tax since the tax is imposed on the net income of corporations, according to the non-partisan House research department.
For other levies, it depends. "Whether the bill's requirement applies to excise taxes (such as the tax on motor fuels, cigarettes, and alcoholic beverages) or other special taxes will depend upon whether these taxes are considered taxes on 'sales' or 'income'," House research writes.
Who supports it and why?
Republican Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers is the amendment's highest profile advocate.
"It's important to me," Zellers, told the Star Tribune in January. "For me it is real simple: If you need 81 votes (60 percent of House members) to borrow money, why shouldn't you need 81 votes to raise money, to raise taxes?"
Zellers and more than two dozen other House members have come out in support of the bill.
Who's opposed and why?
Some public policy groups see a supermajority requirement for tax increases as a fiscal straitjacket, damaging the state's finances and leading to the use of even more financial gimmicks to balance the budget.
States with similar supermajority tax laws have seen their bond ratings fall in recent years, according to the nonprofit Minnesota Budget Project. A supermajority requirement would "increase concerns among credit rating agencies about the state's financial flexibility and creditworthiness, potentially leading to higher costs for Minnesota to maintain our infrastructure," the group wrote.
We got a taste of that during the state government shutdown last summer when Fitch, one of the nation's major bond rating agencies, downgraded Minnesota's debt quality because of the political turmoil around the state's finances.
What's the supermajority situation in other states?
Seventeen states have language written into their constitutions or statutes requiring a supermajority to pay tax hikes. That includes Wisconsin, which last year passed a law requiring two-thirds of voting members to approve a tax increase.
It's not an issue catching fire, however. Historical data from the National Conference of State Legislatures show most of the state measures were passed nearly 20 years ago. Only Kentucky and Wisconsin have passed measures since 2000. (New Hampshire is considering a similar bill.)
What are the odds we'll see this issue in Minnesota on the November ballot?
While Zellers continues to push it, the House Taxes Committee chair isn't banging the drum for it, nor is Republican Senate Leader Dave Senjem of Rochester (although he's sponsor of a supermajority bill in the Senate).
Given the coming legislative struggles over a bonding bill and, possibly, a Vikings stadium, and the desire among many lawmakers for a short session, this measure doesn't seem likely to make it through the Legislature and into the ballot box by November.