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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Disclosing price tag of state initiatives good policy

Many initiatives come with a cost, and Washington legislators want to make sure voters see the price tag.

Initiative 1351 won a narrow majority in November despite the estimated multibillion-dollar cost of the smaller classrooms it mandates. Legislators have not yet figured out where to find the money, and may kick that question back to voters.

But an effort to discourage feel-good initiatives that cause feel-bad spending has already passed the state Senate on a 41-8 vote, including those from Republicans who have cheered on past initiatives that cost the state billions in revenues.

Senate Bill 5715 would have a summary of an initiative’s impact on state revenues, or an estimate of its potential cost, included in the ballot title if the total is more than $25 million.

The proposed wording – the last voters will see before filling in the oval – is:

“The state budget office has determined that this proposal would have an unfunded net impact of (amount) on the state budget. This means other state spending may need to be reduced or taxes increased to implement the proposal. Should this measure be enacted into law?”

Bill opponents say including a statement that taxes might go up is intended to sway conservative voters. Because spending cuts often fall most heavily on social service agencies, liberals might back away.

They also point out that the fiscal estimates that would trigger inclusion of the note will be prepared by the Office of Financial Management within the governor’s office, and therefore subject to political influence. There is no opportunity to contest the estimate, nor is it subject to judicial review.

And signature-gathering would probably begin before the note is available, potentially alienating voters who might not have realized what an initiative could cost them.

Some of these concerns are warranted – the lack of judicial review, for example –but what is unreasonable about the proposition that voters should get one last reminder their vote will have consequences?

Legislators have become much more disciplined budget writers since they adopted rule changes that require balanced revenues and expenditures four years into the future. An I-1351 comes along, and a $4 billion crater opens up. No wonder frustrated Senate Republicans embraced SB5715.

The House and its Democratic majority may not respond the same way. I-1351 was floated by the Washington Education Association, and Democrats are reluctant to buck the powerful teachers union. Buck, they must.

Despite its flaws, we support the initiative system as a necessary spur to, or check on, legislators who lose their bearings in Olympia. SB5715 should not impede the initiative process. It should make voters think one last time about the choices they are making.