May 6, 2012 in Opinion

Smart Bombs: Not for lack of initiatives

By The Spokesman-Review

While exercising in the basement, I watched some of the televised debate over the ordinance to change Spokane’s initiative process. I thought this was about tweaking it to provide for fiscal notes and objective summaries of ballot measures, but what I was hearing suggested that our very democracy was at risk.

And here I was sweating on a bicycle going nowhere.

Many of the protesters saw this as a backroom bid to thwart a third Envision Spokane initiative. They read from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, and invoked dark warnings about lost civil liberties. The more they peddled, the faster I pedaled.

Could it be true? An item on the City Council agenda shredding the U.S. Constitution?

Well, no.

For one thing, there is no way to put federal issues to a direct vote of citizens, so it’s unlikely the founders were concerned with that. Furthermore, most of the original 13 states don’t allow for this type of direct democracy. In about half the states, elected representatives make all the decisions. So it’s quite a stretch to believe the founders would flip their wigs over Spokane changing its initiative process.

Statewide initiatives and bills require fiscal notes, so the public can get some idea of how much a particular measure will cost. Having a third party write a ballot summary avoids situations like, say, Tim Eyman touting a “Stop The Robbery!” initiative.

But even if the ordinance led to more limited use, would that be so terrible? Other governments get by without them. The idea that direct democracy wards off special interests is laughable. Eyman has relied on big financiers with pet peeves. Special interests have sparked and financed many initiatives in Washington. Citizen Costco will drink to that.

States that run a lot of initiatives put their legislators in a bind. Voters cut taxes one year and then ask for more education spending the next. I suspect many opponents of the city’s revamped initiative process wouldn’t sweat it if more speed bumps were placed in front of Eyman’s statewide measures. And, yes, I’m aware that this puts Councilman Mike Fagan, an Eyman lieutenant, in an awkward position since he authored the local revisions.

Proponents of Envision Spokane want the city to be an enclave of livable wages, pristine waters and limited corporate influence. They are not thrilled with listing the possible price of that. But, why not? The costs are wrangled over in the course of campaigns. One side exaggerates; the other downplays. What’s wrong with trying to affix some meaningful numbers to get an idea of what the City Council would be facing?

Eyman pushes perennially for lower taxes. When he wins, legislators are left with the odious task of cutting services. If Envision proponents finally win, they’ll leave City Council members struggling with the ramifications, such as businesses moving to outside jurisdictions, which would lower revenue, which would force budget cuts.

Initiatives are great when you like them and horrible when you don’t. This has nothing to do with disrespecting democracy, and everything to do with governing in the real world.

The city – and democracy – will survive with the new process. One day the current complainers could come to appreciate the changes when an initiative is floated that they oppose.

Is that really so hard to envision?

risky business. I see that the town of Potlatch, Idaho, wants to position itself as a center for gun manufacturing. I dunno. Seems risky.

From what I’m told – over and over – President Barack Obama is a gun-grabber. He was going to do this right away, but National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre sniffed out the “real strategy.” Obama “will lull gun owners to sleep” so they won’t vote him out of office, LaPierre told a gathering of conservatives last year. Then he’ll snatch the guns, and there goes the manufacturing.

Might want to wait until after November, Potlatch.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.

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