Dumb ballot measures, meet smart voters

The News TribuneNovember 7, 2013 


An employee stocks produce near a sign supporting a ballot initiative in Washington state that would require labeling of foods containing genetically modified crops at the Central Co-op in Seattle, Washington October 29, 2013. Major U.S. food and chemical companies are pouring millions of dollars into efforts to block approval of the initiative. REUTERS/Jason Redmond


Initiatives should be considered guilty until proved innocent. The two state initiatives on Tuesday’s ballot — and Tacoma’s Proposition 1 — were justly convicted once the verdict came in from the voters.

The problem with most initiatives is that their drafters are activists, sometimes zealots. They throw in every idea that seemingly advances their causes without benefit of public hearings and contrary advice.

Initiative 522, the GMO labeling scheme, is a textbook example.

The organic food devotees who wrote it didn’t merely want to convey neutral information; they wanted to employ the power of the state to stigmatize the competition.

A genuinely neutral measure would have put the labels on the side of the box, as is done in Europe, instead of the front. It would also have identified the specific ingredients with genetically modified origins and explained the purpose of the engineering.

Some crops have a gene inserted to let them grow with less water, for example, which is good for the environment. Some are engineered to be more nutritious, which is good for people. Some are engineered to be immune to herbicides or to produce sterile seeds, which are highly debatable applications.

I-522 didn’t offer shoppers those critical distinctions; it was drafted to create a toxic aura around any genetic modification for any reason. Peddled as a benign truth-in-packaging measure, the initiative was fundamentally anti-science.

Initiative 517 was another wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Its purported purpose was to protect people who gathered signatures for ballot measures. But it would have gone much further, giving signature-gatherers a legal right to plant themselves at store entrances, on private property, and bother people in libraries and at sports events.

Fortunately, Washingtonians saw through both initiatives on Election Day.

Tacoma’s Proposition 1 — which would have imposed an additional 2 percent gross earning tax on electric, gas and telephone utilities — was not as bad an idea as the state measures. It might even have been a good idea under different circumstances.

But city officials hadn’t bothered to run the plan past many of the people who would have been affected, including surrounding communities and manufacturers who pay some of the highest wages in the region. In government, opaqueness and surprises should not be rewarded.

The measure also invited city council members to play politics with Tacoma Power rates — something they started doing as soon as criticism arose. Their cavalier claims that the tax wouldn’t be passed on to ratepayers reaffirmed the wisdom of Tacoma’s charter, which separated the utilities from the rest of city government to curb just such political meddling.

Voters, bless their hearts, were paying attention to their ballots this fall.

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