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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: Initiative filing fee a turn-of-the-century deal

OLYMPIA – As they do most years, legislators are considering possible changes to the state’s initiative system. That generates the usual shouts of alarm from populists who believe the process is a great bulwark of the citizenry, against either the Legislature’s inaction or its tyranny.

Rules that would require more registration and better identification of people paid to stand outside Home Depot and cajole you into signing are debatable. But one change being proposed is pretty hard to argue.

The secretary of state suggests raising the filing fee from $5 to $50. Before fiscal conservatives go apoplectic at a 900 percent increase, it seems fair to note the filing fee has been five bucks for a long time.

Since 1893.

For 118 years the state has charged people a five spot to file whatever brilliant idea comes into their head. Last year, that included changing the state seal to a picture of a tapeworm. A few years ago, someone else filed for a statewide vote on whether a person who regularly sponsors initiatives is a horse’s rear end. (Neither made the ballot.)

Since that fee was first set, Washington residents went from crossing the state by train or horse to crossing it by car or plane. They went from telegraphing their messages to tweeting them. They’ve added radio, movies, television, computers, the Internet, cell phones … well, you get it. Almost everything has changed.

Except the filing fee.

Various “inflation calculators” that try to track the value of money over time estimate that $5 in 1893 is worth between $120 and $150 today. But the calculators aren’t very accurate before 1913, and it really depends on what you planned to spend that money on. Could be more. A lot more.

A look back at several editions of The Spokesman-Review and Spokane Chronicle from 1893 shows that one could get a dozen ladies’ dresses, a pair of chenille curtains or a year’s subscription to the newspaper for $5. You could get dunned for that amount if convicted of vagrancy, although it was probably the rare vagrant who had $5.

Fresh salmon was 12.5 cents a pound, a bottle of claret wine was a quarter, and a prime ticket to an evening of live theater was 50 cents. Maybe the state could use some of these to come up with an inflation adjuster.

There’s too much variation in dresses and curtains to make the comparison, and vagrancy isn’t a charge you see often in municipal court these days. But we’ll sell you a year’s subscription to the newspaper for $192, and it includes full access to the website, a deal our 1893 edition couldn’t offer.

Salmon was running $8.99 on special at Safeway last week. You could’ve bought 40 pounds of it for $5 in 1893; maybe the filing fee should be $359.60. Of course, salmon was so much more plentiful before they put all the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, so maybe that’s not fair.

Wine’s a bit tricky, because there’s such a range. You could spend $80 on a bottle, but there’s a good chance that bottle of claret advertised for a quarter was closer to three-buck Chuck at Trader Joe’s than Chateauneuf du pape. Let’s assume you have some standards and were going to stay local – it’s a good bet that 1893 bottle wasn’t from France – so you could pick up 20 bottles of Arbor Crest Red for $10.75 each, case price, or $215.

In 1893, you could’ve bought 10 tickets and treated your friends to Miss Essie Tittell, the Great Emotional Actress, starring in the great comedy drama “Pearl of Savoy” at Chase’s Arcadia on Riverside. The best seats for “Legally Blonde” at the INB are going for $60.60, so 10 would cost you $606. Ouch.

The person filing an initiative in 1893 could have plunked down a $5 gold piece, which was a standard bit of coinage back in the day. That was a quarter ounce of gold, worth about $340 today; a freshly minted 1893 Half Eagle, as the coin is called, could fetch as much as $1,600 from a collector.

Just about any way you calculate it, raising the filing fee to $50 might be a bargain. Maybe we should just let the Legislature do it before they get greedy.

Spin Control, a weekly column Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items, reader comments and video at blogs/spincontrol.
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