Initiative process needs a few tweaks

The Washington initiative process is a valuable tool that helps voters cut through noise at the Legislature and bypass interest groups’ hold on lawmaking. It was citizens’ initiatives that created our state’s landmark public disclosure law in the 1970s, a tax on hazardous oil products and pesticides in the 1980s, a nation-leading minimum wage law in the 1990s, and cost-of-living pay adjustments for public school teachers in 2000.

Over the past 16 years, voters also passed initiatives to adopt $30 car tab fees, to cap property tax increases, allow charter schools, ban smoking in public places, allow physician-assisted suicide, legalize marijuana, and last year require criminal background checks for all gun purchasers.

But as the House and Senate are finding with dismay again this year, the things that voters want aren’t always affordable – whether it’s class size reductions, teacher pay or training for home-care workers. And it’s usually impossible to find the two-thirds super-majority votes needed to change initiatives during the first two years after they pass.

As Senate Ways and Means chairman Andy Hill told us recently, “those last five votes get very expensive.’’

In the case of Initiative 1351, which voters narrowly approved last November to reduce K-12 class sizes, the cost is $2 billion this year and $6 billion overall over four years. And there just isn’t appetite for $6 billion in tax increases or program cuts to pay for that.

Certainly, grousing lawmakers have a way around the problem. As Hill notes, they can resubmit the measure to voters, which requires only a 50 percent-plus-one vote in the House and Senate. Clearly, lawmakers' hands are not entirely tied.

But lawmakers are understandably upset that their choices are restricted in a year when they already needed $750 million to $1.3 billion in new money for K-12 schools to avoid sanctions from a Supreme Court contempt citation. The contempt order grew out of another ruling that found the state was violating the state Constitution by not fully funding basic education. It could force lawmakers to raise taxes.

This is why lawmakers from both sides of the aisle drew up proposals this year to counter what they see as the manipulative actions of initiative sponsors who propose nice-to-have spending ideas that don’t come with extra cash to pay for them.

At least four different bills to solve this problem have surfaced. Only one is ready for passage.

Two bills require that costs be included in the ballot title that voters see on their ballots. Senate Bill 5715, which passed in the Senate, has obvious political appeal, letting voters know there is no free lunch. But it is flawed and slaps a fiscal impact notice that could – with the wrong administration – morph into a government intrusion into the process. As written it only affects initiatives with more than $25 million of impact on state revenues or spending; it does not affect measures targeting local governments.

Another measure, House Bill 1364, died. But it deserves more study. Sponsored by Rep. Hunt and co-sponsored by Rep. Johnson, it calls for a pilot program in 2016 that sets up panels to review two initiatives; the panels would produce statements for the voter pamphlet that boil down a measure’s pros and cons. It’s still not clear to us that such a body, made up of randomly selected voters, can do a better job of informing voters.

That leaves one option. HB 2055 ensures that an initiative’s impact on budgets is calculated and made available to authors of the pro and con statements that are published in the voter pamphlet. The bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Norm Johnson of Yakima and co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Sam Hunt of Olympia. Secretary of State Kim Wyman supports it, and even initiative-sponsor-for-hire Tim Eyman says he doesn’t mind it.

This modest measure deserves action this year.