October 14, 2007 in Opinion

Our View: Ballot measures

The Spokesman-Review
 

Endorsement schedule

Oct. 9 – Spokane races for mayor, City Council president and three City Council seats

Oct. 11 – Post Falls City Hall preservation and Spokane County Proposition 1 (Conservation Futures advisory measure)

Oct. 13 – Spokane and Central Valley school board positions

Today – Washington state ballot measures

Oct. 15 – Spokane Valley City Council seat and Liberty Lake mayor

Oct. 17 – Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls City Council seats

Oct. 20 – City of Spokane park facilities bond issue

Oct. 21 – Spokane County Proposition 2 (sales tax for emergency communications facilities)

Six statewide ballot measures face Washington voters on Nov. 6. Here are our recommendations.

Initiative 960 (tax votes): The thrust of Initiative 960 is that Tim Eyman is upset about taxation without complications. So he has written an initiative to make tax and fee increases so complex that few will bother to try. The initiative springs from a legitimate gripe. Legislators have made a mockery of Initiative 601 by too often declaring emergencies to bypass the requirement that a tax increase pass with two-thirds approval.

But the solution is a Rube Goldberg contraption rife with negative consequences – intended and unintended – that will make governance unnecessarily complicated. The initiative would force government to provide e-mail prompts to any voter who wants one when a tax bill is introduced, when hearings are held and when votes are about to be taken. Any tax increase would have to be coupled with a 10-year fiscal projection. If legislators declare budget emergencies, then a list of tax-increasing bills and how each lawmaker voted (which is already available) must be placed on a ballot for a nonbinding vote of the people – which, incidentally, is a cost to government. I-960 also would bog down the Legislature with votes on state agency fee increases.

The premise of these hurdles is that all tax and fee increases are suspect. Tellingly, ballot items on these tax increases would not include rationales for them. No, it’s just the amount, redundant mentions that voters did not vote for them and a 13-word description. If you think that’s reasonable, try describing I-960 in 13 words. Then vote no.

EHJR 4204 (simple majority for school levies): During the Great Depression and World War II, money was scarce and many residents fiercely feared losing their homes to higher property taxes.

During that era, Washington state voters demanded that school levies be increased only upon a 60 percent vote of the citizens. Passed as an initiative in 1932, that requirement was added to the state Constitution in 1944. In those years, the economy provided jobs for those who dropped out of high school.

But times change, and so do the needs of the people. We now live in an economy that demands all children receive a high-quality education. It’s time to eliminate the supermajority vote for school levies.

When levies fail, it’s children who pay the price as teachers are laid off and school sports and music programs disbanded.

Passage of this constitutional amendment must not allow the state to avoid its “paramount duty” to provide basic education. We still feel that’s where the real responsibility lies. But, as a practical matter, we can’t wait – and children can’t wait – for lawmakers to act responsibly. Many schools need to be able to pass levies with a simple majority just to continue buying textbooks and paying crossing guards.

School districts and voters should keep the pressure on the Legislature to provide that funding. The state also must begin paying for the extra school programs that it has required but failed to finance.

The days of the Great Depression are long gone. We wouldn’t be happy with a 1930s curriculum. Neither should we be satisfied with that era’s penchant for excessively restricting the campaigns for school levies.

ESSJR 8206 (rainy day fund): This measure, commonly called the “rainy day fund,” is really less of a protection against precipitation than against heat – the kind that burns a hole in state legislators’ pockets.

If voters approve this constitutional amendment, it will enforce the kind of discipline necessary for state lawmakers to say an occasional “no” to the many constituencies that appeal to them for funding. Make no mistake, even in the sunniest of economic times there are more valid claims on the state treasury than treasure to accommodate them. And when the decision-makers are politicians who survive on keeping voters happy, it’s easy to see why state governments have trouble holding something back as a contingency against the unforeseeable.

It took voters to create Washington state’s current rainy day fund by passing Initiative 601 in 1993. But initiatives are only statutes that can be changed over time by the Legislature. ESSJR 8207 would have constitutional authority behind it, a much surer form of discipline.

If adopted, it would require 1 percent of state general fund revenues – or about $150 million a year – to be deposited into a budget stabilization account. The only circumstances under which those funds could be withdrawn with less than a 60 percent vote in both houses of the Legislature would be in case of a disaster that threatened public safety; a demonstrated economic downturn; or an accumulation of reserves that exceeded 10 percent of the state’s estimated tax revenues. In the latter case, any excess would be appropriated, but only to construct schools and higher education facilities.

The proposal had bipartisan support in the Legislature. The minority who oppose it do so mostly over a concern that it ties elected lawmakers’ hands too tightly. There may be times when that’s so, but there are more times when that’s exactly what’s needed.

Referendum 67 (insurance claims): Let it be said, at least this once, that there’s a legitimate place in society for lawyers and insurance companies.

You wouldn’t know that, however, from the campaign rhetoric over Referendum 67, a contest that might as well be titled, “Battle of the Bloodsuckers.”

Voters, therefore, need to look past the high-charged hyperbole and make a reasoned decision.

The stated purpose of the measure is to protect consumers from unreasonable denial of valid claims under their insurance policies. Nothing wrong with that, except that consumers already have recourse in such cases. What they don’t have is the ability to recoup their legal costs when they win, or to collect more than they were owed.

If the measure, which was passed by the Legislature but forced to a public vote by insurance interests, merely allowed collection of legal fees, the debate would be different, but it goes too far.

By allowing triple damages in such cases, it effectively imposes punitive damages, something Washington state law doesn’t allow. People who think that would be a good thing need to remember what pooled risk is all about: The more an insurance company pays out in claims – such as three times what circumstances justify – the greater the cost to other rate payers.

We don’t buy the implication that all lawsuits over denied claims are frivolous or that insurance companies never turn down legitimate claims. But the state Office of the Insurance Commissioner has authority to penalize unreasonable companies, and consumers already have the means to sue them.

Referendum 67 is an overreaction that voters would be wise to reject.

SJR 8212 (inmate labor): This proposed constitutional amendment would allow private for-profit and nonprofit entities to contract with the state to operate inmate labor programs within correctional facilities. It had nearly unanimous backing in the Washington Legislature, because it has something for every ideology.

The tough-on-crime folks applaud it, because it opens up prisons to more diversified industries, guaranteeing that inmates won’t sit idle. Inmate rights people like it because it has the potential to train inmates in wide-ranging job skills that should help them succeed in the outside world. It deserves a yes vote.

SHJR 4215 (higher education fund investment): This proposed constitutional amendment allows the state to do what any sound investor should do: Get the best use out of money that’s socked away for a while. Now, permanent funds that benefit higher education can be invested only in stable (but often low-return) funds, such as government bonds.

In past years, voters approved altering the state Constitution to allow more diversified investing of other state-managed funds, such as money for K-12 education. Critics of the change worried that these funds would be “gambled” away on risky investments. Hasn’t happened. And it shouldn’t this time, either. Higher education needs every dime it can get. The state’s legislators – only two voted no – agreed the change translates to wise fiscal stewardship. Voters should give this one a yes vote, too.

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