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Tight budgets threaten initiatives

Voter mandates rarely include funding sources

OLYMPIA – When Washington state voters don’t want to wait on the notoriously slow legislative process, they don’t hesitate to go to the ballot.

More than 100 initiatives have appeared on the ballot since 1914; about half have passed as voters issued mandates ranging from a smoking ban in bars and restaurants to yearly teacher pay raises.

But the voters don’t typically send any money with their demands. That leaves lawmakers in states with costly initiatives a menu of unpleasant choices when they face big budget shortfalls: override the voters or find the money to honor their wishes. Twenty-four states currently allow ballot initiatives.

In releasing her budget proposal last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire targeted two initiatives that passed in 2000. Teacher pay raises would be skipped entirely during the 2009-2011 fiscal years, and money for reducing class sizes would be cut by about a quarter.

Gregoire’s budget also would delay stepped-up training for home-care aides who care for the elderly and disabled, the most expensive chunk of Initiative 1029, which was approved just last month.

“I hate it,” Gregoire said of her budget during its rollout on Dec. 17. “There is something in there for everybody not to like.”

Other states are facing similar dilemmas. In Oregon, Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s budget contained only about half of the $150 million needed for a tough new prison sentencing law recently adopted by Oregon voters.

Along with spending mandates, many states have voter approved restrictions on tax and spending increases.

In California, which is facing a projected $42 billion deficit by June 2010, Democrats have introduced a constitutional amendment to eliminate the required two-thirds vote to pass a state budget.

Arkansas and Rhode Island are the only other states with such a requirement. Majority Democrats in California blame the threshold for causing prolonged budget stalemates in recent years, including a record 85-day deadlock last summer.

In Washington state, a similar voter-approved threshold requirement for raising taxes is being challenged in the courts by Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, who argues it’s an unconstitutional intrusion on Legislature’s power.

In Montana, Gov. Brian Schweitzer is asking lawmakers for all the money for a voter-approved initiative to expand a popular children’s health insurance program – about $20 million – even though he’s cutting the overall budget $140 million and says many state employees won’t get raises.

Schweitzer spokeswoman Sarah Elliott said that paying for the initiative was a priority for the governor because “voters clearly wanted this program.”

Montana isn’t facing a deficit, but its projected surplus for the next two years has dropped from $1 billion to $200 million. Elliott said the initiative saves money in the long run by focusing on preventative health care for children.

“We felt we could do that and meet other budget priorities,” she said.

John Matsusaka, president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, said the impulse to overturn voters during tough times is understandable, but he warns it can backfire by provoking more initiatives that leave Legislatures even less room to maneuver.

“Overriding the will of the people is a desperate measure, and there could be repercussions to that,” Matsusaka said.

But many lawmakers view initiatives that mandate spending without providing the money as a dangerous nuisance.

“It definitely makes the state difficult to govern,” said Sen. Ken Jacobsen, a Seattle Democrat who’s long been a critic of the initiative process. “If you have the initiative and referendum system, state planning is an oxymoron. You never know what’s coming.”

In Washington, the class-size initiative was slated to cost $910 million for the next two years. Teacher raises were to cost nearly $350 million. The raises were suspended once before, in 2003, and the class size initiative money was decreased, although not eliminated.

“It was painful, but the world didn’t end,” said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam.