Tri-City Herald: Voter initiatives need a price tag up front

One hundred one year ago, on Jan. 2, 1914, the first initiative was filed in Washington. It proposed statewide prohibition on liquor and was approved by a vote of 189,840 to 171,208. That law was repealed 18 years later — again by voter initative.

Since that time, more than 2,000 initiatives have been filed in Washington — some have been approved, some rejected and some never made it to the ballot.

Initiatives sometimes create laws that legislators have no appetite for. Recently voter initiatives have brought us legalized marijuana, charter schools and death with dignity.

And sometimes they create laws that make no sense from a budget viewpoint.

In theory, Washington’s initiative process gives people more say in their government. In practice, however, it can be a financial nightmare.

Giving people the opportunity to be heard is an important part of our system of government. But with that opportunity comes responsibility.

When the Legislature considers a bill, it also must consider the cost.

People who submit initiatives are not under that same obligation.

They can call for measures that cut taxes or increase spending with no thought of where the money will come from.

A recent example is the class-size initiative voters approved in November by a margin of 51 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed — a narrow, but costly, victory.

According the Washington Office of Financial Management, the measure will force the state to spend $4.7 billion over the next four years and also will increase school districts’ authority to levy additional property taxes — up to $1.9 billion through 2019.

That is part of the story you don’t hear when someone stops you on your way into a store and asks you to sign a petition to “help our kids.” After all, who is going to say no to smaller class sizes and better learning?

We suspect people would have been much less likely to give their autograph — or their vote — if the fiscal impact had been explained.

It’s easy to give a high-level overview of a proposed law. It’s much more difficult to find a way to pay for it.

Too many feel-good initiatives make it onto our ballots and into our lawbooks. Petition signers and voters need to consider the cost of a bill, not just the warm, fuzzy ballot title.

Perhaps we need an initiative that requires a fiscal note be attached on the ballot.

We are not opposed to the initiative process. But having the ability to enact a law without considering how to pay for it is terribly shortsighted.