Initiative “watchers” need watching

David Ammons, the dean of WA’s Capitol press corp, has a piece today on the initiative process, and the newly established state chapter of the Initiative and Referendum Institute: “National Group Takes Up Initiative Watch Here.” (Kitsap Sun, free subscription required.)

The Institute claims its role is to protect the initiative process; its state director, Shawn Newman warns that power brokers in Olympia would like to abolish the initiative process entirely. But this rhetoric merely echoes the typically hyperbolic sentiments of professional initiative sponsor Tim Eyman:

“Legislators are always going to be looking for an opportunity to undermine the initiative process, so you have to be ever vigilant.”

What a load of crap. The initiative process is safely ensconced in our state constitution, and there’s absolutely no way to significantly reform it without a two-thirds vote in both houses, and a simple majority at the polls… thus the Institute’s stated mission is a red herring. Indeed, Ammons quotes one notable critic, who points out that the biggest threat to the initiative process is Eyman himself:

“We don’t need a mindless cheerleader for this process,” says David Goldstein, a Seattle blogger who watches initiatives closely. He dismisses Newman’s worry about the process being under attack and says, “The No. 1 thing that undermines the initiative is the way it is overused and misused, particularly in the western states.

“It is a complete end run around representative government. We elect these people to the Legislature and if you don’t like their decisions, you throw them out. Nothing could be more democratic than that.”

Initiatives are largely anti-government and have been taken over by wealthy individuals and special interests, Goldstein says.

That Goldstein guy really knows what he’s talking about.

The fact is, the initiative process has long ceased to be the populist safety-valve that was intended. Initiative sponsors like to tell voters that this is the only way to “send a message” to Olympia, but the message the sponsors send to voters is that government is the enemy. In that sense, even the most progressive initiative can work against the broader progressive agenda, as the very act of filing an initiative is commonly perceived as an indictment of our elected officials.

As we have learned again from the saga of I-872, initiatives are typically poorly crafted, and often downright unconstitutional. But when the courts do their job and toss out an illegal initiative, the sponsors cynically use that too to fan the flames of anti-government fervor. Look at some of our state’s most profligate initiative sponsors — Tim Eyman, John Carlson, the BIAW, the gambling industry — these are all people and organizations with a radical vision of a dramatically smaller and weaker government, with little taxing power and even less regulatory authority. Outside the mainstream of political opinion, they cloak their agenda in populist clothing, while often appealing to our basest, most selfish instincts.

That the initiative process needs watching is a given… that it needs protection is a joke. And in the Institute’s case, it is also a lie. They understand full well that by it’s very nature the initiative process is a handy tool for turning the people against their government. And that is the overarching agenda of many on the right who support the process most.

Comments

  1. 1

    NoWonder spews:

    Declaring everything under the sun as an emengency is a recent “reform” implemented by the dems. I think that if the liberal pet projects were more popular and could pass by initiative the left would embrace the concept.

  2. 2

    Donnageddon spews:

    “Declaring everything under the sun as an emengency is a recent “reform” implemented by the dems.”

    Uh, you mean like Social Security has become an emergency under the Neo-Con administration?

  3. 3

    Felix Fermin spews:

    Liberal pet projects are popular – witness I-728 (education spending) which got the greatest yes percentage of any recent initiative – but they cost money. 728 was sort of a liberal Eyman-esque initiative, in that it said “spend money” but didn’t identify a source. Eyman’s initiatives say “cut taxes” but don’t identify what to cut. What might help make the initiative process more sound is to require funding sources for initiatives that propose to spend, and to require specified program cuts for initiatives that propose to cut taxes.

  4. 4

    righton spews:

    Yipes, you guys are so anti-democratic. Shades of Russia, 1984, state is more impt than the people.

  5. 6

    spews:

    Government by initiative is wrong on every level.

    I couldnt disagree more. In fact I would say the more initiatives we have on taxes the better. There is no fairer way.

  6. 7

    Obiter Dictum spews:

    In the legislative process you often see education, deliberation, and rational compromise. Any bill that makes it through undergoes multiple hearings, multiple rewrites, and floor debate.

    In the judicial process,when public policy is developed it generally comes forth from lengthy adversarial processes, though multiple levels of judicial wrangling. Few stones are unturned.

    The executive branch in the adoption of rules must go through the administrative procedures act; it ensures public comment, a defense of the intent, analysis of the costs, etc.

    Of all the potential processes for the development of public policy the initiative process is the least deliberative and inane.

  7. 8

    Liking it spews:

    I think the initiative process is under threat by those who file initiatives to debase other and self-promote themselves. Like publically libeling someone as a “horses ass.”

    Oh wait. That one never even got a ballot title even though the sponser raised several thousand and lost in court.

    Nevermind about any threat to the initiative process.

  8. 9

    Thomas Trainwinder spews:

    rufus @ 6

    I disagree on every level. Government by initiative permits voters to affect government policy on a specific issue WITH NO RESPONSIBILITY whatsoever for any implacations of that individual decision.

    Voters don’t have to balance budgets, determine levels of spending, provide services. When they click the “PAY LESS TAX” box, there are no repercussions for the individual decision.

    Even my die-hard right-wing republican friends realize the wrong-headedness of this.

    They wonder what it would be like if their employees could vote to “PAY MORE SALARY” with no responsibility for the effect of that on the company.

    We live in a representative democracy for a reason — we elect people to make the complete decisions and hold them accountable every 2 or 4 years.

  9. 10

    Thomas Trainwinder spews:

    Also, this shows why we’re in such a mess. People think it’s the government; it’s not. It’s the initiatives that make the leglistative process a joke. How embarassing for us.

  10. 11

    Donnageddon spews:

    Initiative Rule is the Tyranny of the Majority.

    Initiatives certainly have their place but people like Eyman are just jackel’s at the throut of good government.

  11. 12

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    Ya know Goldy, for all the wackiness of the anti-government crowd, it’s nevertheless a good thing to keep politicians on the defensive; and the initiative process provides citizens with an important insurance policy against legislative excesses. At the end of the day, I think too little government is a far lesser evil than overbearing and oppressive government. The voters can be beguiled and misled but I still trust them more than politicians, given the general quality of the people comprising our professional politician corps. Politics has largely become a hobby for the idle rich, which is not particularly a qualification for making decisions affecting the rest of us. Hell, legislators don’t even read most of the bills they vote on — they depend on staff summaries and party leadership, and there’s so many issues thrown at them everything is a swirl, and they’re constantly voting on complex issues on topics about which they know little or nothing. No one in their right mind would argue that politics is a rational process or produces deep thinking and careful decision making. In this context, the initiative is simply too valuable a safeguard for ordinary citizens to give it up. Sure the initiative process will be exploited, misused, and abused by those who play political hardball for selfish ends. It’s up to each voter to separate the wheat for the chaff. That’s our job as voters.

  12. 13

    Baynative spews:

    98 emergency legislative bills signed into law in 5.5 months! What possible explaination can Olympia come up with for working so hard to stifle public influence?

  13. 14

    spews:

    They wonder what it would be like if their employees could vote to “PAY MORE SALARY” with no responsibility for the effect of that on the company.

    I think the taxpayer is more like the business owner then the employee. A representative government is a must. I guess I look at government as a neccessary evil. I also subscibe to the less is better philosphy. I have more faith in the electorate then a individual politician, especially when it comes to tax issues.

    TT just curious. When you say “hold a legistlator accountable” what are your sources to judge if the government is being responsible?

  14. 15

    NoWonder spews:

    Thomas Trainwinder @ 9

    “When they click the “PAY LESS TAX” box, there are no repercussions for the individual decision.”

    If there are no repercussions we should cut taxes much more. And it is hardly one individual that passes the initiatives.

  15. 16

    Old Fart spews:

    Baynative at 13, your numbers are meaningless unless you provide a comparisons. I’d like to see the annual number of emergency clauses for the last two decades.

    I could be terribly wrong, but my experience with the legislature would lead me to suspect that the variance over that period of time would be relatively minor — and that both parties have used emergency clauses with fairly equal fervor when they have controlled both houses. Indeed, it would be interesting to see if the numbers looked much different when the houses were controlled by different parties. By the way, it’s not fair to “cherry pick” years, e.g., by comparing a politically calm year with one rife with policy crises.

    In the absence of more meaningful numbers, your comments read suspiciously like someone who is trying to create a scandal where there is none.

  16. 17

    Thomas Trainwinder spews:

    rufus at 14:

    you said: “I have more faith in the electorate then a individual politician, especially when it comes to tax issues.”

    — The electorate elects our government…hence you must have equal faith in them. No single politician creates new law.

    you said: “I also subscibe to the less is better philosphy.”

    — I guess you vote democtratic nationally. The republicans have grown government much faster than democrats over the past 25 years. Democrats tax and spend; republicans borrow and spend (more). You notice Rove, Bush no longer talking about “smaller government?” Their track records makes that a hollow claim.

    you asked: “When you say “hold a legistlator accountable” what are your sources to judge if the government is being responsible?”

    — The full flow of information in an open society (including blogs like this and SP).

  17. 18

    Thomas Trainwinder spews:

    Nowonder @ 15:

    Of course I meant individuals don’t have to cut spending/make tradeoffs like lawmakers do.

    Your other point is right — the majority of voters click “PAY LESS TAX” when given the chance. I presume many would click “PAY NO TAX” without any thought for the effect of passing that.

  18. 19

    Baynative spews:

    Old Fart @ 16-

    You raise an interesting question. I’ll see what I can learn (assuming you don’t already know). meanwhile, I did find some of what our current legislature considers to be an “EMERGENCY”.

    If the following are indicative of legialative performance and attitude it seems to follow that the emergency clause means little or nothing to lawmakers – except to keep voters at bay.

    * HB 1003 – Allowing off-road vehicles (ORVs) to be used on nonhighway roads when authorized and exempting ORVs operating on nonhighway roads from vehicle licensing, equipment and lighting requirements.

    * HB 2221 – Exempting canning, preserving, freezing, processing, or dehydrating fresh fruits and vegetables from business and occupation tax.

    * SB 5274 – Implementing a state-registered real estate appraiser trainee classification.

    * SB 5581 – Creating the Life Science Discovery Fund Authority. The Authority can enter into an agreement with the state to receive tobacco settlement funding starting in 2008.

    * SB 5951 – Exempting certain information held by the Horse Racing Commission from public records disclosure.

    * SB 5952 – Exempting trams used for transporting people to and from parking lots to horse race facilities from vehicle licensing.

  19. 20

    Chuck spews:

    Goldy
    “It is a complete end run around representative government. We elect these people to the Legislature and if you don’t like their decisions, you throw them out. Nothing could be more democratic than that.”>>>

    Actually you are on to something there, we need an easier way of throwing them out, that way it wouldnt take us 4 years to deal with Gregoire. But while you are trying to fuck with the peoples initiative process, tell me what additional training or qualifications does an elected person have that makes them the only ones that should (in your opinion) have a rational vote?

  20. 21

    steve zemke spews:

    What critics of initiatives frequently forget is that initiatives work for both liberals and conservatives. What liberal critics like David forget is that an initiative was required to pass the Public Disclosure Act and the Shorelines Management Act. Initiatives were required to twice raise the minimum wage and twice to take the sales tax off food. One would think that these would be common sense issues that legislators would act on but the legislative process alone is often too beholden to special interests. The initiative process arose out of a time when the railroads owned the legislature. Initiatives provide a safeguard against special interests dominating the legislative process.
    Like anything else initiatives are battleground areas where you have to have to fight out the issue in the public arena.
    Both liberals and conservatives can use this arena just like they can fight issues out in the Legislature.
    Sure some initiatives may be badly written or special narrow interests push them but so are many legislative bills. Look at all the special interest tax breaks businesses have gotten as an example.
    While the legislative processs is deliberative and requires a number of hearings and repeated votes, in reality initiatives are actually the most publicly debated and discussed issues that are before the public.
    The responsibility falls to the public to be vigilant and participate in the process. Bad initiatives can be defeated. It just takes work. Good initiatives can be passed. That also takes work.

  21. 22

    NoWonder spews:

    Thomas Trainwinder @ 18

    My points are that 1)The service cuts due to less taxes should be felt by the taxpayers – if the fearmongers are right. and 2)Please do not forget that taxpayers do need to balance budgets/make decisions when taxes go up.

  22. 23

    rwb spews:

    Chuck @ 20
    you said: “But while you are trying to fuck with the peoples initiative process, tell me what additional training or qualifications does an elected person have that makes them the only ones that should (in your opinion) have a rational vote?”

    An elected person actually has the time to study taxes, study possible effects of proposed laws. Most voters don’t have the time or the motivation or the education to make intelligent choices. That’s why we elect representatives. What part of this don’t you get?
    If we don’t like how our representatives make law, we elect someone else.
    To me, many (not all)initiatives do nothing but waste all the time and effort our representatives have put in (how’s that for creating government waste?). They cater to selfish, knee-jerk reactionaries.
    And when the initiatives are found unconstitutional, they’ve wasted even more time and money.
    Our initiative system is being badly abused.

  23. 24

    righton spews:

    RWB; yeah, relying on a bunch of boobs getting $32k to piss away time in Olympia, means we aren’t getting the best and brightest. I’ll bet on my neighbors, whether rich guys in nice neighborhood or middle class and other in normal or less well off neighborhoods to collectively make better decisions.

    But then you probably think someone like Julia Patterson is a good elected official (kc, not a state, but still your prototypical Dem elected official).

  24. 26

    pbj spews:

    Of all the potential processes for the development of public policy the initiative process is the least deliberative and inane.

    Of all the potential processes, the initiative process is the least likely to be abused by corrupt scoundrals. Anyone can propose an intiative, but it must be agreed upon by a majority of the electorate. Potential scoundrels must expend a larger amount in order to rig things than they would if they say bought Fraudoire a new porsche for raising the gas tax. Just an example.

    Now, I know the liberals are going to scream Tim Eyeman and the gaming intiative as a counterexample, but that just proves my point. The initiative process has proven that even if you have big money interests such as Canada Gaming trying to ‘game ‘ the system (sorry, couldn’t resist) the voters have the ultimate say.

    And any argument that voters can be babmbooozled by advertising blitzes during initiative drives applies equally to the election of representatives.

    The intiative process is a check on corrupt politicians who would otherwise run amok until their next election.

  25. 27

    pbj spews:

    An elected person actually has the time to study taxes, study possible effects of proposed laws. Most voters don’t have the time or the motivation or the education to make intelligent choices. That’s why we elect representatives. What part of this don’t you get?

    Basically what is comes down to is that you don’t want the power in the hands of the people. Yeah – I get it. Stalin thought the same thing too.

  26. 28

    righton spews:

    Goldy didn’t mean “elect representatives” in the way we think of it….he means, “trust the Party” (you know, like the red chinese have their 1 party that does everything in the interest of the people…)

  27. 29

    pbj spews:

    rwb@23,

    Most voters don’t have the time or the motivation or the education to make intelligent choices.

    Well your own theory shoots down you preference for elected representatives. If they are too dumb to make quality choices in the initiative process, then what makes you thnk they all of a sudden get smart when votin for representatives? Or do you only believe that they are smart when your side wins the election?

  28. 31

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    Baynative @ 19

    You make the same mistake righty simpletons always make — you impute a vernacular meaning to a “term of art” and thereby totally misunderstand it. In the legislative context “emergency” is a technical term that refers to the effective date of the law. In plain terms, the Legislature can decide to speed up when a new law takes effect, and the term “emergency” is used to designate these bills.

    Cheesy Chuckie @ 20

    So Chuckie you’re a fan of direct democracy? OK, let’s get rid of the Electoral College. It was put in the Constitution to preserve slavery, so we don’t need it anymore.

    Steve Zemke @ 21

    Agree with you on all points, Steve.

  29. 32

    Goldy spews:

    Steve @21,

    As you know, I’m not forgetting that the initiative process has been used to pass good, progressive legislation. But in the 14 years I’ve lived in this state, I’ve seen the process become hijacked by money, and turned into a weapon in the right-wing fight to dismantle government. Thus I’d prefer disarming both sides.

    For example, why should one wealthy man, Michael Dunmire, have the power to put any initiative he wants on the ballot for an up or down vote? Get a good ballot title and little organized opposition, and you can pass nearly anything.

    Once upon a time, initiatives required broad grassroots support to get on the ballot. Now all they need is a half million dollars in paid signature gathering. So for the most part, the only initiatives that get before voters are those with a lot of money behind them. Even if you label I-912 as a grassroots effort, what does that make…? Two or three successful volunteer signature drives in the past decade?

    Initiatives should be the exception, not the rule.

  30. 33

    Chuck spews:

    rwb@23
    Where do they find all of this time to study? As it is I have more time to study these things than a part time legisltive person.

  31. 35

    Chuck spews:

    Goldy@32
    No Goldy, the initiative prosess should be opened up more, so the people can not only eliminate/add taxes or programs but give a way of financing or realising the goal (kill the single subject rule). That way instead of I-695 killing your precious tab fees, funding could be directed from elsewhere…same with I-912. As a matter of fact instead of whining about 912 which will pass, you know as well as I, you could be pushing an alternative funding petition…

  32. 36

    L. H. Smith spews:

    We need to have something to slap down this oppressive government here in Washington. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government have gotten “too big for their britches.” They now blatantly ignore initiatives passed by the votes. It’s clear that they do not believe in democracy.

    We need people to watch over this govenment to insure they do not overide the initiative process by doing things like declaring every spending bill an emergency.” Washington gevernment nees to be slapped and put into its place as the servant of us voters, not our lord and master!

  33. 37

    pbj spews:

    Goldy@32,

    For example, why should one wealthy man, Michael Dunmire, have the power to put any initiative he wants on the ballot for an up or down vote? Get a good ballot title and little organized opposition, and you can pass nearly anything.

    Why should one man – Paul Allen have the power to get his Footbal Stadium on the ballot? Why should he have the power to make Democrats dance like marionette’s?

    Why is it Democrat alway talk about the evil corporations and then hop right into bed with them after the election? Whether it is Mike Lowery giving in to big monied sports interests or Bill CLinton lobbying for an Enron Electric plant in Bhopal India, Democrats whore themselves out to big corporate interests even before the confetti of the election hits the floor.

    Why is that Goldy?

  34. 38

    spews:

    The electorate elects our government…hence you must have equal faith in them. No single politician creates new law.

    No TT.. The electorate is the creator and the legistlature is the created. What does the good book say on what you should put your faith in… the creator or the created? Whenever possible I will trust the electorate to make the right decision in public matters before I trust the legistlature. The only reason it not feasalbe is becasue the volume of voters and it is not feasable to have an election every day.

  35. 39

    spews:

    you said: “I also subscibe to the less is better philosphy.”

    – I guess you vote democtratic nationally. The republicans have grown government much faster than democrats over the past 25 years.

    Nope– Dont believe that for a second. After I saw the convulsive fits the democrats made back in the 90’s when the Republicans wanted to cut the increase in a already bloated school lunch program that was it for me. The democrats will not cut their silly social programs. At least with the Republicans I know they are blowing the money on the military of which I am getting some kind of benefit.

  36. 40

    spews:

    you asked: “When you say “hold a legistlator accountable” what are your sources to judge if the government is being responsible?”

    – The full flow of information in an open society (including blogs like this and SP).

    A superior source would be independant audits. If we have to audit corporations four times a year at least we could audit the government once a year. There is no accountability without independant verification.