Our Voice: Initiative language change would give voters more information

The initiative process is a glorious thing.

It allows our state’s citizens to put issues to a public vote.

And it has been the mechanism for a lot of things that may sound great and reasonable to become law by a vote of the people.

That is democracy in action, folks.

The problem is, as always, the devil lies in the details. Sometimes voters don’t know enough about an issue. It’s easy to get people fired up about issues using emotion and little else. And since those gathering the signatures required for an initiative often are being paid by the head, it’s easy to see how the spin can overtake reality.

Often, the details don’t include how the new programs will be paid for. The devil also is the dollars.

Nobody likes taxes and big fees, right? So the state’s voters changed the vehicle licensing fee process a few years back. The problem was, no one thought about how to replace the money that was funding things like our state’s roads..

Voters also passed an initiative mandating renewable energy sources in the state. One of the problems was that hydropower wasn’t classified as renewable. So now our ridgelines are peppered with windmills, costing our local utilities and our pocketbooks, while our system of rivers and dams continues to produce more power than we can use.

More recently, voters passed an initiative to limit class sizes in public schools, another concept that sounds great in theory. In practice, if the state implements it as the voters require, it will cost almost $5 billion over the next five years.

The Legislature has the power to suspend and even repeal initiatives, but it’s a process unto itself. And that’s not really in the spirit of giving the voters a say in their government.

Most initiatives passed by the voters have merit. What they lack is a payment plan.

Our state Senate has passed SB 5715 to require a measure on the ballot to include the fiscal impact if it costs or reduces spending by more than $25 million over two years.

So on the ballot would be something along the lines of this statement: “This means other state spending may need to be reduced or taxes increased to implement the proposal. Should this measure be enacted into law?”

Some flaws exist in the bill as it stands, and it’s now under consideration by the House. Most notably, it would be up to the state to decide if there’s enough fiscal impact to merit the additional attention to the voters. It should apply to all. And it should apply to legislation our elected officials want to enact as well. Fair is fair and our dollars are our dollars — whether legislators or citizens direct how they’re spent.

We like the idea of making sure voters know the financial impact of a measure, and with some fine tuning, this could be a way for us all to make more informed decisions.