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Initiative debate about to get louder

Richard Roesler Staff writer

OLYMPIA – Brace yourself for a wave of political spin in the coming weeks.

Doctors and lawyers will go toe-to-toe on your living-room TV over the costs of medical malpractice. Health groups will try to convince you to stamp out smoking in taverns, bowling alleys and other holdouts. And big companies, unions and Realtors want you to resist the urge to overturn the state’s 9.5-cent gas-tax increase.

By far the biggest battle will be over medical mistakes.

Already, doctors, insurers and lawyers have raised enough cash to shatter Washington’s record for most expensive ballot measure.

“I think we’re going to see the TV airwaves pretty much filled with this issue,” said Leo Greenawalt, president of the Washington State Hospital Association, one of the groups backing Initiative 330.

Until now, the state’s most expensive ballot measure was 1997’s Referendum 48, to build the new Seahawks stadium in Seattle. Backers and foes spent a combined $6.9 million.

But with nearly two months to go until the Nov. 8 general election, this year’s I-330 already has drawn more than $8.5 million. And that’s not counting $731,000 for I-336, a competing medical-malpractice initiative.

“Never in my history has so much been spent to confuse so many,” said Cathy Allen, a Democratic campaign consultant in Seattle.

There will be five measures on the Nov. 8 ballot this year – an unusually high number. So far, pollster Stuart Elway said, voters favor all five.

“It’s very possible all five initiatives will pass,” said ballot measure veteran Tim Eyman, backing one this year. “That’s a pretty eclectic barrage of initiatives.”

But Elway said initiative support is usually strong initially, then shrinks as critics raise doubts.

“All ideas,” he said, “look good at first.”

Voters may also grow skeptical of a multimillion-dollar faceoff over medical malpractice, Western Washington University political science professor Todd Donovan said.

“When you get these fairly narrow economic interests spending a lot of money bashing each other, I think it adds to the confusion,” he said. And confused voters, he said, tend to vote no.

Here are the measures that will appear on this year’s Nov. 8 ballot:

Initiative 330

This measure seeks to cap most pain-and-suffering payments at $350,000. It also would limit attorney’s fees and shorten the timeline for filing medical malpractice cases.

Without such changes, proponents say, the high cost of insurance in Washington is driving health-care providers out of business. In ads, I-330 supporters blast “jackpot” verdicts won by patients injured by negligent doctors.

“We’re having a terrible time recruiting physicians into this state,” said Greenawalt. “Physicians have been told in their medical schools that it (Washington) is one of the bad ones.”

Last week, the group Public Citizen released a study suggesting that the number of doctors in Washington is rising, not falling.

“That’s one of the more bald-faced lies they tell,” responded Washington State Medical Association CEO Tom Curry. He said state licensing data include many doctors who only practice part-time or in other states, or are deceased.

“The access crisis is real,” Curry said.

Critics of I-330 say that it would strip patients’ rights.

“It’s not ‘jackpot verdicts’ or the number of verdicts that are driving medical malpractice (insurance) rates,” said Barbara Flye, chairwoman of the No on I-330 Campaign; it’s things like payouts after the Sept. 11 attacks and poor stock market returns.

Under the measure, she said, health-care providers could require patients to agree to mandatory arbitration, instead of court, in case of a medical mistake.

“It really boils down to an insurance industry effort to take away consumer and patient rights,” she said.

Both sides have a lot of money. The group Doctors, Nurses and Patients for a Healthy Washington has raised $4 million. Hospitals for Health Care Access has come up with another $1.8 million, including nearly $80,000 from Spokane’s Empire Health Services and nearly $132,000 from Providence Health Care.

The No on I-330 group – composed largely of lawyers and law firms – has raised nearly $2.7 million.

Elway Poll in August: Yes: 53 percent, no: 36 percent. (The rest are undecided.)

Initiative 336

A lawyer-backed counter to I-330, this would require medical license revocation after three malpractice verdicts, set up a state-run malpractice insurance program to pay for the biggest jury awards, and make it much easier for patients to get information about medical errors.

“It puts in place some mechanisms to really go after doctors, and it takes away the secrecy,” said Flye.

The medical association’s view? It would be a disaster.

“This (initiative) has nothing to do with bad doctoring,” said Curry. Even in very weak cases, he said, doctors would be forced to settle, not wanting to risk one of the three “strikes” against their license.

“It is pure and simple extortion,” he said.

By opening many more records to injured patients, Greenawalt said, hospitals would lose the confidentiality they rely on for candid reporting – and fixing – of medical errors.

“The physicians here believe that if (I-336) passes, it will be open season on them,” he said.

The group Citizens for Better, Safer Healthcare has raised $731,000 for I-336. Of that, more than $700,000 was contributed by the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association.

And what if both I-330 and I-336 pass? That’s what happened last year in Florida, after groups spent tens of millions of dollars on three malpractice measures. Voters approved all three, and state lawmakers there are now left to sort out the conflicts.

Elway Poll: Yes: 61 percent, no: 21 percent.

Initiative 900

Eyman’s latest measure, this would allow the state auditor to conduct performance audits of all state and local governments. Such audits seek to measure how well government is performing its mission, instead of just tallying up the books.

“A performance audit gives him the ability to say ‘Do we even need ferries? Would a bridge be smarter?’ ” said Eyman.

State lawmakers partially beat Eyman to the punch this year, approving a bill to allow the auditor to do such audits of state agencies. But Eyman wants the auditor to examine cities, counties, school districts and other local agencies as well. The initiative sets aside $10 million a year to pay for performance audits.

But that’s not nearly enough to do what Eyman promises, said Andrew Villeneuve, executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute.

Eyman’s measure also does away with a citizens advisory committee, which state lawmakers created to prevent an overzealous auditor from creating chaos.

“What if we get someone like Tim Eyman as auditor? He could abuse the power of the office,” Villeneuve said.

Eyman said he doesn’t plan to advertise. No political group has formed to oppose the measure on a large scale.

“We’re gonna win. Why spend the money?” Eyman said. “It’s hard to get a coalition of people standing there with a straight face saying ‘No, we’re opposed to accountability.’ “

Eyman raised $568,000 for the measure, much of which was spent gathering signatures to get it on the ballot. Most of the money – $488,000 – came from Woodinville businessman Michael Dunmire.

Elway Poll: Yes: 61 percent, no: 30 percent.

Initiative 901

Another measure without much organized resistance, this would snuff out indoor smoking in restaurants, bars, roller rinks, mini-casinos and bowling alleys.

“Why should families or children be forced to breathe poison when they go out to eat or listen to music?” said Peter McCollum, a spokesman for Yes on I-901.

Nine other states already have similar comprehensive indoor bans. I-901, however, would be the toughest statewide smoking ban in the nation, because it also bans smoking within 25 feet of doorways, open windows and ventilation intakes. More than 300 municipalities have such a law, McCollum said.

“Nobody should have to walk through a cloud of smoke just to enter a building,” he said.

A tiny No on I-901 committee has formed to oppose the measure.

“For all intents and purposes, this initiative is written to kill off the bar and tavern industry,” said Dave Wilkinson, who works in the surveillance room of a Seattle mini-casino.

He predicts that smokers will flock to tribal businesses – which state law cannot touch.

And it’s absurd, he said, to banish smokers 25 feet across the parking lot in subfreezing winter weather here.

So far, Healthy Indoor Air for All Washington has raised $797,000, including donations from the state lung, heart, cancer and medical associations. The American Cancer Society donated $400,000.

Wilkinson said his group would be lucky to raise $50,000 to fight the measure.

“This is truly David vs. Goliath,” he said.

Elway Poll: Yes: 58 percent, no: 40 percent.

Initiative 912

This would repeal the 9.5-cent gas-tax increase approved by state lawmakers this spring. The first 3-cent phase took effect in July.

“It was a bad bill at the wrong time,” said Brett Bader, a spokesman for Nonewgastax.com, the group behind the measure.

Once the tax is completely phased in, Bader said, Washington will have the highest state gas tax in America without enough accountability for how the money is spent. The project list also doesn’t do much to combat the congestion choking the Puget Sound area, he said.

Lawmakers said the multibillion-dollar tax increase is critical for safety. “We already pay the fourth-highest gas tax in the nation, and we’re not getting safety now?” said Bader. “Then where is the money going?”

Villeneuve, who opposes the measure, said that it defies logic for the state to take away money for transportation maintenance.

“This is an investment that we know will pay off” in safety and reliability, he said. And with the way gas prices have been rising so fast lately, he said, this year’s 3-cent increase “is just sort of an insignificant portion of it.”

“If people want to get gas prices lower, there should be an investigation of what the oil companies are doing,” Villeneuve said. “And people should conserve, to lessen the demand.”

Nonewgastax.com has raised $168,000 in cash contributions so far. An opposition group, Keep Washington Rolling, has raised $158,000. Major donors to the opposition include the state Association of Realtors, Boeing, Microsoft, the Seattle Mariners and the Washington Asphalt Pavement Association.

Elway Poll: Yes: 52 percent, no: 45 percent.

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