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Regulation Fight Likely To Be On Ballot Initiative 164 ‘A Major Policy Decision With A Huge Price Tag’

Voters are likely to decide the fate of an initiative that would require taxpayers to pay property owners if government regulations infringe on the use of their land.

The House approved Initiative 164 last month, 69-27. Every Republican member of the Spokane area delegation voted for it.

But the measure is stalled in the Senate, where powerful committee chairmen oppose it.

If the Senate lets the plan die in committee, which some backers and opponents now predict, the measure will go to the voters in November.

Even if it is approved by the Senate, the initiative likely still will go to the voters in November because opponents say they plan to petition it to referendum.

Referendum backers have 90 days from the date the Legislature adjourns to gather more than 90,000 signatures needed to put a measure on the November ballot.

“This thing is going to the voters either way,” predicted Sen. Sid Snyder, D-Long Beach, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. He supports the initiative.

Some were optimistic the Senate will take action on the initiative. One reason is financial, said Tom McCabe of the Building Industry Association.

If the timber companies, builders, Realtors and other business interests who back the initiative have to spend an estimated $1.5 million to campaign for it, that’s $1.5 million that won’t be available to help conservative candidates in the next election, McCabe said.

“It’s pay me now or pay me later. That’s blatant, but it’s also true. And it’s something they will have to think about,” McCabe said of senators.

Because I-164 is an initiative to the Legislature, lawmakers have three options:

They can pass it, making the measure law immediately. It can’t be amended and doesn’t go to the governor for signature. They can pass it along with an alternative, sending both to the ballot.

They can ignore it, and it goes on the ballot.

Right now, the measure’s chances of getting out of the Senate look dim.

“It’s 50-50,” said Sen. Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, Senate minority leader.

“I doubt there will be the votes for it in my committee to pass it out,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee. “Then there is Ways and Means. It’s just a question of where you want to bury it, I suppose.”

Haugen said she feels strongly the measure should go to the voters.

“It’s a major policy decision with a huge price tag. We can’t change it either. And it is very poorly written.”

Haugen said she opposes the measure because of its impact on local government. Cities and counties are fighting the measure, which they argue would cut into local control over land use, including zoning.

That’s because the measure would require taxpayers to pay for local restrictions if they restrict full use of private property. Many local officials argue that would make common zoning restrictions, such as height limitations on buildings, too expensive to pass or enforce.

But supporters dismiss the criticism as scare tactics.

Haugen said she sees little support for an alternative measure in the House, so there’s little point in writing an alternative in the Senate.

Sen. Ways and Means Chairman Nita Rinehart, D-Seattle, opposes the measure in part because of its cost to local and state governments, estimated by the state budget office at hundreds of millions of dollars.

Initiative backers say their livelihood depends on lessening the burden of restrictions on property rights.

State regulations to protect the northern spotted owl already have cost Boise Cascade Corp. $55 million in lost timber harvest on 12,000 acres near Cle Elum, said company forester Steve Tveit.

Regulations being discussed to increase buffer zones along streams could take 40 percent of the company’s East Side timberland out of production, Tveit said.

“That’s the kind of uncertainty private landowners face because of big government,” Tveit said.

Building and real estate interests spent $147,923, including $72,301 from the Building Industry Association. Agriculture interests spent $12,500.Dan Wood, coordinator of the I-164 campaign, said the

Legislature can’t ignore the initiative because so many constituents are being hurt by regulations that constrain the use of their property.

He criticized opponents who say they don’t like the initiative but won’t offer an alternative.

“Their favorite answer is doing nothing,” Wood said.

Wood and other supporters said if the measure is bottled up in committee, they hope the 25 senators needed to pass the measure will take a procedural vote to force the bill to the floor.

Some doubt the votes are there, because Democrats still hold the majority in the Senate by one vote. “I told our caucus in the very beginning they didn’t have the votes to pull it to the floor,” said Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton. “It takes a majority to do that. We might get lucky. But I doubt it.”

xxxx Initiative 164 The measure would: Require taxpayers to compensate property owners if government regulations limit the use of private property for public benefit, except when the regulation is to prevent a public nuisance. Require taxpayers to pay for any plans, maps, studies or reports used in decisions to restrict private property rights for public use. Require taxpayers to pay for an analysis of the economic impact on private property at least 30 days before any new regulations or restraints are adopted.