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Justices weigh flaw in initiative

Vote on home health care training hangs in balance

OLYMPIA – It’s not what we said, it’s what we meant.

That, in essence, was the case made Thursday in the state’s highest court by proponents of a ballot measure that would require more paid training for home health care workers.

In what could be a very expensive glitch, a Service Employees International Union local and its allies spent months and more than $450,000 to put Initiative 1029 on the fall ballot, only to discover at the last minute that some wrong wording in the text could derail the effort.

The petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of voters wrongly say that it’s a proposal for state lawmakers, rather than one that would go straight to voters.

“You’ve got to admit, your folks made a bit of a mistake here,” Chief Justice Gerry Alexander told a lawyer for the initiative’s backers.

“And that’s all it was,” responded attorney Mike Subit.

Sitting in the gallery, Yes on Initiative 1029 campaign manager Jeff Parsons echoed that.

“It was just an oversight,” he said. “We fully intended this to go to the ballot.”

Secretary of State Sam Reed’s office, which handles initiatives, decided the error was harmless and approved the measure for the November ballot.

But opponents, including many operators of adult family homes, went to court saying that the petition’s wording – “to the legislature” – should be taken at face value.

“We submit these words do have meaning,” said Narda Pierce, an attorney for the Community Care Coalition of Washington.

With Election Day approaching and ballots and voters guides headed for printers, the state Supreme Court returned a week early from its summer recess to hear the case. A ruling is expected within days.

The justices seemed divided.

Justice Jim Johnson, a longtime initiative proponent, pointed out that opponents have shown no evidence that anyone felt fooled.

“Who thought they were doing an initiative to the Legislature and will be deprived of a right or even disappointed by finding it will be an initiative to the people?” he asked. “I’m just searching for anyone being misled.”

Jeff Even, the state’s deputy solicitor general, defended election officials’ decision to put it on the ballot despite the error. Although not technically correct, he said, the measure met all the requirements to get on the ballot.

Even compared a ballot measure to a basketball game: The rules are precise, “but as anybody who watches an NBA game knows, the officials don’t call every foul.” If anything, he said, the constitution “places a thumb on the scale … in favor of voters voting” on a measure.

SEIU and the measure’s other supporters argue that in a state where it takes 1,000 hours of training to be a hairdresser and 300 hours to be a dog masseuse, it’s absurd to require many home-based long-term care health workers to undergo just 34 hours. They want to raise the requirement, in most cases, to 75 hours.

More training, they say, would mean better care from these state-paid workers. That, Parsons predicts, would mean fewer lawsuits against the state.

Opponents say it’s not that simple. They say the change will be expensive, costing taxpayers $30 million over the next two years. And they say the one-size-fits-all nature of the proposed training is a poor fit for many clients. Someone caring for a child, for example, doesn’t necessarily need training in age-related dementia, said Deb Murphy, a member of the coalition’s steering committee.

“More unnecessary training does not equal better care,” she said. “This is a shotgun approach to an issue for which there is not a problem.”

Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or by e-mail at


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Then and Now: Comstock Park

James M. Comstock, born in 1838 in Wisconsin, arrived in Spokane in time to witness the great fire of 1889 and start Spokane Dry Goods with Robert Paterson. It became the Crescent, Spokane’s premier department store for a century. He also worked in real estate and owned other businesses. He served a term as Spokane mayor, starting in 1899. James Comstock died in 1918.