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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: Fighting over initiatives is premature

OLYMPIA – Initiative entrepreneur Tim Eyman and his detractors squared off recently in the Capitol, where the ingenuity of their latest ideas was overshadowed by doubts about their earnestness.

Eyman signaled he has relatively little confidence the state Supreme Court will look kindly on the constitutionality of this year’s proposal to force supermajority tax votes in the Legislature. He filed yet another ballot measure to force lawmakers’ hands.

Under the new proposal filed by Eyman et al. Wednesday, if legislators won’t send voters a constitutional amendment to require two-thirds majorities for all new taxes, any new taxes without said supermajority will have to be passed again on an annual basis. Or something like that.

The latest supermajority scheme might be worthy of serious study and in-depth legal analysis were it not for one key point. Initiatives to the Legislature are traditionally filed in the summer, because the signatures must be submitted by New Year’s Eve, just before lawmakers are returning to Olympia.

With less than six weeks to gather nearly 250,000 signatures, the initiative had dismal prospects, even before Eyman conceded it’s really just a stalking horse. He won’t gather signatures and plans to submit it again in January as an initiative to the people, at which time he’ll have about five months to collect the needed names.

But this iteration, he said, allows the campaign to begin raising money right away, which he did with a steady stream of donation-seeking emails to his many fans.

Anyone who thinks that’s an over-the-top gambit for someone under state investigation for funny finances in a previous campaign doesn’t really know Eyman, who is nothing if not an aficionado of audacity.

Which explains why he and his main partners, Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan and Fagan’s father Jack, wandered down a Capitol Building hallway from the secretary of state’s office, where initiatives are filed, to the governor’s office for a formal unveiling to the news media. They brought with them ice cream, a reference to a comment they said Gov. Jay Inslee made about the tendency of voters to approve things that sound good, just as they are likely to accept a free bowl of ice cream.

This is a standard jab some people make at initiatives that fail to lay out costs or consequences, but it’s debatable. Washington probably has enough vegans and animal rights activists opposed in principle to ice cream, and when the lactose intolerant are added in, a free ice cream initiative might fail. But I digress.

While Eyman and Co. extolled the virtues of their initiative, and denounced Inslee in his office lobby, the governor’s chief spokesman David Postman came out to tell Eyman to turn down the volume because work was going on in adjoining spaces. That grew into a series of verbal parries and thrusts, although hardly the ballistic rant Eyman has claimed, the video posted online reveals. But Postman seemed to have forgotten what he learned in his previous job as a political reporter in Olympia, that no one comes out ahead in such confrontations with Eyman.

Sure enough, by week’s end Eyman was touting the video of their back-and-forth on his latest fund-seeking email with “You’re gonna love watching this!” in the subject line.

Meanwhile, in an effort to out-Eyman Eyman, a progressive group filed an initiative that could make it harder for him – for that matter, anyone – to pass ballot measures in low-turnout years. The Northwest Progressive Institute’s proposal, which also has no chance of making the signature deadline, would require at least 50 percent of all registered voters to cast ballots in the election or a ballot measure would not pass, regardless of the number of yes votes received.

This is a response to this year’s passage of Eyman’s I-1366, which has about 51.5 percent of voters marking yes, but somewhere south of 40 percent of voters even bothering to turn in their ballots. That means “a small fraction of the state’s electorate can impose laws on everybody else in an election with poor turnout,” the institute’s Andrew Villeneuve said. It is not “true democracy.”

Actually, it is, as long as people had the chance to vote, but just didn’t. Progressives should be careful what they ask for, because some initiatives they might propose in an off-year election, when turnout is often below 50 percent, could fall victim to such a rule. Plus some Eyman initiatives pass handily in even-year elections when turnout generally meets that threshold.

They made a comparison to the Legislature, where the standard is the majority of the number of legislators, not a majority of those present. In that case, the rule would be passage with yes votes equal to 50 percent of registered voters, not a demand for turnout.

It also would require an initiative that calls for a supermajority on any matter to pass by that same supermajority. While somewhat logical as a defensive position, this has the same problem that they accuse Eyman’s proposals of having, that a minority of voters could thwart the will of the minority.

Progressives irked by Eyman seem to be wedded to the adage of fighting fire with fire. If this past summer of wildfire has taught us anything, it would be there are usually better tactics to employ.

Spin Control, a weekly column by veteran reporter Jim Camden, also appears online as with daily items, reader comments and videos at blogs/spincontrol.

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