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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control: Legislature taking aim at the initiative process

Tedd Nealey speaks with a passerby about the Healthy Indoor Air for All Washington initiative he was collecting signature for outside a northside business May 22, 2005. (Liz Kishimoto / The Spokesman-Review)

For part of each year, usually in May and June, patrons of supermarkets and big box stores – which is to say, most of us – are likely to encounter a living, breathing part of Washington democracy.

A person tries to get us to sign a petition for an initiative or a referendum, which is somebody’s idea of a good thing voters should approve or a bad thing they should get rid of. If enough other somebodies agree and sign the petition, it goes on the November ballot. If enough voters say yes, it becomes law.

The initiative process has been part of Washington’s political landscape for more than 100 years, and some legislators think it needs a 21st century update. Among their proposed changes: making people who get paid to gather signatures have their names and other information on file with the company that’s paying them, so if complaints come in, the source of the alleged problem can be found.

The most fervent supporters of some restrictions on signature gatherers are the owners and managers of stores where the gatherers set up shop, and sometimes create problems for customers entering or leaving the establishment.

Scott Brauer, vice president of Yoke’s Foods, told the Senate State Government Committee last week that the company used to view signature gatherers as a community service.

That was before they started getting complaints from customers about overly aggressive, even abusive signature gatherers, caught some shoplifting and had to break up verbal or physical altercations, Brauer said.

“They refuse to follow our policies,” he said.

Not surprisingly, these proposed changes do not sit well with people in the business of thinking up, drafting and promoting initiatives.

Tim Eyman, the most prominent practitioner of the initiative business, said the Legislature is trying to make people jump through “burdensome hoops” for trying to exercise the First Amendment right to petition their government for the redress of grievances.

The proposed rules cover people being paid to gather signatures, but not volunteers who are doing it because they support a cause, he added.

“Paid signature gatherers have every incentive in the world to be polite. They’re risking their money,” he said. “The true believers, they’re the ones that stalk people.”

The bill, as written, infringes on the constitutional right of political speech, and the right of voters to participate in their government, said Elizabeth Smith of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. There’s also the problem that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a previous Washington law that distinguished between paid and unpaid signature gatherers.

But the state makes people register to vote, to drive a car and makes distinctions between paid and unpaid lobbyists, Holly Chisa, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Grocery Association, said. Paid lobbyists have to register with the Public Disclosure Commission; volunteer lobbyists who come to Olympia to advocate for or against a bill, don’t.

The Legislature wrestles with possible changes to the initiative law almost every session. The fact that the process is pretty much the way it was in the early 1900s should give people some idea of how hard it is to change.

Say what?

It is standard operating procedure when a bill gets its first hearing at a committee for the sponsor to get a chance to explain why it’s worth the time to consider it. Legislative rules require sponsors to identify themselves and their district “for the record.”

The rules don’t say how succinct or elaborate they must be, and some legislators are more loquacious than others. Take Sen. Reuven Carlyle, who was called up to discuss two bills in front of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Committee last week.

“Thank you, madam chair. For the record, Reuven Carlyle, representing the delightfully kind and caring, dapper and dignified people of the 36th District, widely and objectively known worldwide as the very heart and soul, passion and spirit of Seattle.”

Replied Chairwoman Lisa Wellman: “You’re using your time up, Senator Carlyle.”