OLYMPIA – Friday was a rare day in Washington state politics, although it went mostly unnoticed because it was rare for what didn’t happen rather than what did.
It was the deadline to turn in signatures for an initiative to the people – to put on the November ballot an idea some would deem brilliant and others ridiculous. No one turned any in.
Not since 1989 – when the first George Bush was president, B-52s with nuclear weapons still stood ground alert at Fairchild Air Force Base and B-52s of another kind were singing “Love Shack” – have Washington voters been without an idea that someone decided was worth bypassing the Legislature and taking directly to the people.
In those 24 years, successful initiatives to the people have raised the minimum wage and teachers’ salaries; approved term limits and tax limits, charter schools and smaller class sizes, physician-assisted suicide and medical marijuana; and outlawed bear-baiting and some kinds of animal traps, just to name a few. Sixty-one initiatives to the people got the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot, and 31 passed.
These are separate from initiatives to the Legislature, a slightly more cumbersome and generally less popular process in which petitions are circulated, and if enough signatures are gathered, the proposed law goes first to the state Senate and House. Legislators can keep it off the ballot by passing it outright; reject it, which puts it on the ballot; or pass an alternative, which puts both proposals on the ballot.
This fall’s ballot will have two of those: one that would require many foods that use genetically modified products to be labeled, and another that would extend the time for gathering signatures for an initiative and toughen penalties for interfering with collecting those John Hancocks.
This year’s drought of initiatives to the people is not for lack of imagination. A record 84 were filed, covering topics from red-light cameras to checkout bags to the pattern of letters on a keyboard.
But getting into the process isn’t much more complicated than writing your great idea out in legalistic terms and paying a $5 fee. Gathering the signatures is what usually teaches would-be Hammurabis this ain’t as easy as it sounds unless big bucks are available to hire small armies of signature-seekers.
This year no group gathered the requisite 246,372 verifiable signatures from registered voters to get their initiative on the ballot. Nobody even came close. The secretary of state’s office said the sponsor of a proposed “Firearms Freedom Act” reported earlier in the week he planned to bring in several hundred signatures but apparently changed his mind. It wouldn’t have mattered; the state Elections Office doesn’t verify sigs when a proposal clearly doesn’t have enough.
Initiatives have become a cottage industry for some, both for people who charge the sponsors to collect signatures and for people who raise money for the initiatives they sponsor.
A 19th-century populist might find it ironic that a system designed to counteract the big players of that era – big business, big labor, big political machines – is now used by some of the 21st century’s big players when they can’t buy the legislation they want in the Capitol.
Tim Eyman, of Mukilteo, along with Spokane aides-de-camp Mike and Jack Fagan, has made initiativing a full-time job, filing more than half of this year’s proposals, including 32 that were some form of “Taxpayer Protection Act.” He also filed three “sons” of 1183, which took the state out of the wholesale and retail liquor business, and one son of 1125, a previous Eyman initiative on highway tolls that failed. Surely our populist forefathers would be amazed to learn that in just over 100 years we have come to the point where even unsuccessful ballot measures have progeny.
Monday is the deadline for residents of Washington who aren’t currently registered to vote to do so with relative ease and be eligible for the August primary.
Links to online instructions and forms can be found at www.spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.