OLYMPIA – Three weeks of debate over suspending Initiative 960 can be distilled to this: If you change an initiative, you are crushing the will of the people. Not if it’s something that really needs doing, in which case you are exercising the leadership the people elected you to show.
No it’s not. Yes it is. No. Enough already, let’s vote because we all know this sucker’s going to pass, and the people can express their will in the fall elections. Yeah, just you wait. No, you wait.
In the wake of all the “will of the people” talk, the secretary of state’s office last week released a list of initiatives passed since 1952, when the current rules for amending initiatives were reset by constitutional amendment. It suggests the will of the people is not so sacrosanct that one should never, ever change it.
Of the 45 that have passed in those 57 years, at least 29 have been changed, many more than once. And that was before the recent tweaking or eviscerating of I-960.
Initiative 276, which set up campaign disclosure and lobbying rules in 1972, apparently holds the record, having been amended more than 22 times, when the Legislature and governor’s mansion were controlled by Republicans as well as Democrats. The people’s will was pretty strong on that measure, with 72 percent voting yes; by comparison, the people’s will on I-960 was a somewhat wishy-washy 51.2 percent.
The list doesn’t count the times a legislator proposed a bill that would have surgically snipped or completely obliterated an initiative, but that likely happens every year without serious regard to “the will of the people.” Those who propose bills to limit abortion, for example, probably don’t care that “the people” expressed their “will” by passing I-120 in 1991 and said the state law is essentially the standard set up in Roe v. Wade. They would likely argue the people were simply wrong on that topic and that moral issues should not be governed by plebiscite.
Several legislators cited the vote totals on I-960 in their districts as a reason to vote for or against the suspension. That’s an interesting, albeit somewhat parochial, view of democracy, considering it’s a statewide initiative. And they don’t operate in a democracy; they’re part of a republican (note: small “r”) form of government.
There’s also a suggestion that when the people express their will, that’s it. No sense arguing, it’s time to get with the program and man the ramparts against any challenge to the collective will. So how do some populists explain that after the people reject an initiative one year, they come back with almost the same idea the next?
That happened on term limits, creating a somewhat ambiguous will. Voters said no in 1991, but yes in 1992. The state Supreme Court tossed them out in 1998 because a constitutional amendment was needed to impose the people’s will on that particular topic. Several incensed legislators promised to push through a constitutional amendment to satisfy the will. Never happened, and maybe the will morphed into the won’t get around to it.
Maybe people’s will on term limits, like several other initiatives declared unconstitutional by the court, have to take a back seat under the theory the current collective will should not infringe on the much more sagacious collective will of the founding fathers.
At least a couple of legislators thundering loudest about “the will of the people” on I-960 should hope so, because they’ve been in office WAY longer than the time voters willed legislators to serve back in 1992.