When the Spokane City Council voted to clear the Envision Spokane initiative for a vote of the people, Councilman Mike Allen said, “I’m pretty confident I know what that decision will be. I do not support it, but I support the initiative process.”
That’s fair. Initiative gatherers had done their part; now it would be up to voters.
But since then, it appears the council’s confidence has been shaken, because they added two questions to the ballot. Should voters raise taxes or cut services if needed to implement the bill of rights if it passes. The questions serve as not-so-subtle hints to voters that there might be costs associated with this “community bill of rights.”
In short, it would sure please the council if voters just said no. That would please us, too, because we think it adds too many items to City Hall’s basic responsibilities. But we also think the council’s ballot questions are heavy-handed.
Council members complain that the ballot language is inaccurate and incomplete, that the initiative addresses multiple topics, which makes it legally suspect, and doesn’t provide for financing. Proponents say the council is misconstruing the measure, exaggerating potential costs and that the measure is legally sound.
That debate looks like traditional campaigning, which is how the arguments against the initiative ought to be aired. By placing questions on the ballot, the council has invited the perception that it is using public resources to campaign.
If the initiative were to pass and if it resulted in public expenditures and if the council wanted the public’s advice, that would be the time to put questions on a ballot. Doing so now looks prejudicial.
City Councilman Al French defends the questions: “It’s to say if Envision Spokane has value to you, tell us how to pay for it.”
This begs the question of whether there will be costs. If there are, then the way to pay is the same for all adopted initiatives. When statewide initiatives for increased teacher pay and smaller class sizes were up for votes, state legislators didn’t rush to place “how to pay” questions onto the same ballot. The issues of cost became part of the campaign.
The question of how to pay for services the public says it wants always falls to officeholders. If they want the public’s advice, they can put advisory questions on the ballot after the fact. But pre-emptive questions show a lack of trust in the initiative process and the voters themselves.