Tri-City Herald: Including fiscal impact in initiative titles a good idea

Proposed changes to Washington’s initiative process are swirling in the Legislature and, as of now, it looks like the small, most attainable adjustment is the most reasonable, best first step.

Senate Bill 5715 would require the title of ballot initiatives to include potential fiscal ramifications. This means voters will be better informed before they mark their ballots, as they will more clearly see a dollar amount attached to the proposal.

The bill would affect initiatives that potentially would increase taxes by $25 million or more, or decrease state revenue by that same amount.

This seems like a sensible idea. If voters are going to decide an issue that can’t work without additional funding, they should be aware of that. The impact their decision could have on the state budget needs to be clear, and putting that information into the ballot title is a good way to accomplish that.

Currently, a fiscal note is attached to ballot measures described in the voters’ guide. But unfortunately, many people don’t bother to read it. Writing the cost of an initiative proposal into the title on the ballot puts it right out there and gives voters a chance to make a more informed decision.

This latest legislative effort to tinker with the initiative process comes on the heels of voters approving Initiative 1351, a measure that will lower class sizes but likely will force the state to spend $4.7 billion over the next four years.

The vote was 51 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed. Who knows how it would have turned out if the cost of the proposal was included on the ballot? If the cost had been explained on the ballot and voters still approved it, then legislators would know with more certainty that the majority believed this demand is worth the extra cost.

Without the fiscal impact included in the ballot title, it is understandable if legislators wonder if the voters really understood the financial ramifications of their vote.

Sen. Joe Fain, a Republican from Auburn, is sponsor of this bill as well as a proposed constitutional amendment that, as originally written, would require initiative supporters to include a way to fund their proposal. He said Senate Joint Resolution 8201 is still evolving. When it was first introduced, we had reservations and thought it went too far.

But this latest Senate bill is better. All it really does is take the fiscal note that is in the voters’ guide and attach it to the ballot title. Giving voters more information is something we can support.

And while we are discussing reform, why not require lawmakers to follow similar rules? Currently, they can still pass unfunded mandates. If people framing the initiatives have to include the cost of their proposals, so should legislators.

Nothing should hinder the people’s right to make changes through the initiative process, but at the same time voters need to understand some of these issues they support come at a great cost. Explaining the fiscal impact of an initiative in the ballot title is a small step, but an important one. Lawmakers should make this change happen.