June 8, 2008 in City
Citizens find initiative not enough
OLYMPIA – Unhappy with reports of abuse at camps for troubled teens, Angela Smith decided to turn directly to voters for reforms.
The Seattle woman wrote a citizen’s initiative. She recruited 100 volunteers, got thousands of petitions printed, and set about collecting signatures.
Four months later, things look bleak. Volunteers have dwindled. The campaign war chest consists of a single $20 donation. And although she needs to come up with about 225,000 signatures by July 3, boxes of blank petitions are still stacked in her living room.
“We’re not very close, unfortunately,” she said.
Smith’s experience is being repeated around the state, as initiative proponents discover it’s easy to launch a ballot measure but tough to bring it in for a landing. The state filing fee is just $5.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Tim Eyman, a ballot-measure activist turned pro. He has sponsored 15 initiatives, mostly anti-tax measures. Ten got on the ballot and eight were approved by voters.
“How many small businesses do you know that can be up and running and successful in four months?” Eyman said of the effort required. “It’s like running down the street trying to put your pants on.”
Although nearly 60 measures were proposed in Washington this year, interviews with proponents suggest that just a handful are likely to get enough signatures by next month’s deadline. Among the casualties: Products in Washington will not get a universal five-year warranty, car-license tabs will not become free, and hens and sows will have to wait for relief from cramped cages and pens.
In Idaho, where the deadline to qualify for general election ballots is earlier, no statewide measures made it.
Here’s a look at how some of the Washington measures are faring:
•Assisted suicide: I-1000 would allow mentally competent, terminally ill people to obtain a lethal prescription. Proponents have a million-dollar campaign fund, high-powered staff and popular front man, former Gov. Booth Gardner.
Still in play
•Transportation: Eyman’s I-985 would open carpool lanes to all vehicles during off-peak hours. It would steer some taxes and traffic fines into road projects. And it would boost roadside help and traffic-light synchronization. Eyman recently appealed to donors, saying he’d taken out a $250,000 second mortgage on his Mukilteo home to pay signature-gatherers.
•Care workers’ training: The Service Employees’ International Union is backing a measure to require 75 hours of training and broader background checks for in-home health care aides.
“SEIU is a mighty force and they’ve been successful in the past with initiatives. I think it will be on the ballot,” said Louise Ryan, Washington’s long-term-care ombudsman. In a state where it takes hundreds of hours of training to do animal massage or human manicures, she said, the measure is a needed step toward better care. Critics say it’s costly and would drive some badly needed workers out of the profession.
•Smoking: Joseph Arundel, a partner in Seattle’s Rain City Cigar shop, filed I-1016. It would allow smoking in cigar stores, cigar bars and private clubs such as the American Legion. Arundel says backers had about 100,000 signatures by the end of April.
“We’re trying,” he said. “The reality is that the low-hanging fruit has been picked” as store customers signed up. “This next batch is going to be tougher.”
•Taxes: Tax foe Wynn Cannon says his I-1030 is “going very well,” although he said he couldn’t estimate the number of signatures gathered so far. The measure would cut property taxes 30 percent. Cannon maintains that state and local governments could easily absorb such a hit.
Cannon said his group, the League of Washington Taxpayers, has 21,000 members he’s relying on to circulate the petitions.
“All indications are that 1030 will make it,” he said.
•Hens, calves and pigs: The Washington chapter of the Humane Society of the United States proposed I-1023, which would have required farmers to give egg-laying hens a cage big enough to spread their wings. Many of the state’s 5 million hens are confined to cages smaller than the width and length of a standard sheet of paper, said Inga Gibson, HSUS’ Washington state director. A similar measure, I-1024, would have required larger pens for veal calves and breeding sows.
“These measures would just provide the most basic, necessary, humane conditions for these animals,” Gibson said.
But both are stalled as the group focuses on a similar measure it just got on the ballot in California. Gibson also said she hopes to work out legislation with Washington farmers.
•Instant runoff voting: Olympia home builder Jackson Millikan filed I-1001 to set up a system in which voters rank their favorite candidates, instead of picking just one.
“People love it once they understand it,” he said. But he and supporters have only gathered a couple thousand signatures, he said.
Still, Millikan said he loves that Washington allows citizen lawmaking. It’s good for democracy, he said.
“Half the reason I do it,” he said, “is to exercise that muscle.”
•Driving school: David Slipp, a driving teacher in Tumwater, filed I-1006. It would steer some traffic-fine money into driving programs. Many schools no longer can afford to offer driving classes, Slipp said. And private driving schools, he said, won’t set up shop in sparsely populated areas. Result: more novice drivers with little training.
“It’s a little bit bleak right now,” Slipp said of the initiative. He’s hoping for a boost from a Seattle talk-radio appearance.
•Global warming: Littlerock chemist Patrick Crawford agrees that the Earth is warming, but he says it’s just part of a natural cycle. His I-1008 sought to ban any public spending on projects designed to reduce global warming or greenhouse gases.
“I couldn’t get anybody to help,” he said of the effort. But he’s a big fan of the initiative process.
“It’s a very cheap way to get an idea out,” said Crawford, whose other methods include posting a legislative update in public bathrooms. “If I don’t shoot (the ideas) out there, they don’t stick. And I figure the public will weed out the ones that are duds.”
•Property taxes: Vancouver pilot Jon Haugen’s I-997 would have rolled back property values to their 2005 levels plus 2 percent a year. To do that, however, might take a constitutional amendment, he says. So he dropped the initiative and instead is running for state Senate.
•Mold: Teresa McCormick’s I-1012 would force building inspectors to report mold in a building. McCormick, who lives in Lakewood, says she bought her home five years ago only to discover it was full of toxic mold. Tapping her retirement, she said, she spent $100,000 to fix it and another $100,000 on legal bills.
She hopes for more volunteers but said she needs many more – or a lot of cash to hire signature-gatherers.
“Unless we can find someone with $250,000, which is what it would take at 50 cents a signature,” she said, “it’s very likely we’ll fail.”
•Overtime, lobbying and a five-year warranty: Tacoma medical technician David Henshaw filed a dozen proposals this year. He wants companies to pay workers more on nights and weekends (I-987), saying it’s better for society if they’re home with their families. I-990 would create a new category of crime: “lying about war.” I-991 would force lobbyists to record and disclose all conversations with elected officials.
“You can put a little thing on your iPod and record everything you say,” he said. “I think that would clean up lobbying.”
Henshaw’s I-993 would require a five-year warranty on most nondisposable products.
“Poor product quality is disadvantageous to everyone,” he said. “We should set some standards.”
Henshaw says he’s undeterred that none of his ideas got off the ground. He’ll be back with more next year, he said, including one to ease congestion with a “sky tram” system of pods on rails.
“I have faith in democracy,” he said. “The more people you have making a decision, the less likely you are to get it wrong.”
Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.