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Spin Control: Is the ballot initiative fever cooling in Washington?

Initiative promoter Tim Eyman stands at the end of a session of Thurston County Superior Court on Feb. 10 in Olympia.  (Associated Press)

While newspaper reporters must be wary of pronouncing trends – that’s the purview of cable news talking heads who guard their territory jealously – some evidence points to a cooling in Washington’s love affair with the great populist institution known as the ballot initiative measure.

There will be no initiatives to the people on this November’s ballot. No initiatives to the Legislature that lawmakers either ignored or revised and sent to the voters. No referendums from people upset about something those lawmakers did and who wanted to give voters a chance to reject it. No referendums that lawmakers attached to a piece of legislation to ask voters whether they will accept it.

This in a state that has legalized campaign finance laws, physician-assisted suicide, marijuana and privately owned liquor stores, limited taxes and restricted gun rights, all through initiatives. Voters have also approved daylight saving time, raised the minimum wage, reinstated the death penalty, exempted food from the sales tax, rejected and later approved charter schools.

Voters initially approved an income tax back in the depths of the Depression, when most probably had so little income they didn’t think they’d have to pay it, only to have the state Supreme Court rule it unconstitutional. Voters since have rejected an income tax multiple times.

In some years, there have been as many as a half dozen voter initiatives on the ballot. Last year there were no people’s initiatives and one referendum. The year before, no people’s initiative but one initiative passed on from the Legislature and a referendum.

The initiative process can be an imprecise measure of public support.

In 2018, supporters of an affirmative action measure easily gathered a boatload of signatures to send it to the Legislature. Lawmakers eventually approved it, only to have opponents gather another boatload of signatures to put it on the ballot as a referendum, where it was rejected by about 21,000 votes out of nearly 2 million cast.

Some years, initiative filings cover a pretty wide spectrum. Ten years ago, for example, there were multiple proposals to revise the state’s tax system, plus others to put tracking devices on sex offenders, close and sell off The Evergreen State College, change the state song, develop a long-term care system and require hens that lay eggs have more cage space.

While there were some 40 proposals for initiatives to the people filed this year, variety was much thinner. More than two-thirds of them were efforts by perennial initiative pusher Tim Eyman to block some type of tax. The deadline for turning in signatures was last month; no one did.

Another 140 proposals have been filed so far this year as initiatives to the Legislature, which would send a bill to the 2022 session that could make lawmakers say “What a great idea! Why didn’t we think of that?” and approve, or ignore and send to that November’s ballot.

Again, the vast majority – 114 of the total – are the anti-tax musings of Eyman, filed after a Thurston County Superior Court judge fined him $2.6 million for ongoing campaign finance violations and noted it would be “difficult for the court to conceive of a case with misconduct that is more egregious or more extensive.” That’s also the case that Eyman once said would, if he lost, put a lifetime ban on his political activity.

Apparently not. If anything, it has made his political activity even more frenetic.

Another two dozen initiatives to the Legislature have been filed by Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, on a variety of red-meat conservative topics. They include keeping schools from teaching anything about institutional or systemic racism; banning “vaccine passports” to prove one has been vaccinated against COVID-19 to access a restaurant or other public place; limiting the governor’s emergency powers; banning a state income tax and requiring voters to approve any tax increase.

These are at the top of the wish list for the Trump wing of the GOP. As a member of the Legislature, Walsh sponsored or co-sponsored bills that do some of those things during the last session and could easily write legislation for the others at the start of the next.

An initiative to the Legislature filed by a legislator is something of an end-around, an admission that none of those ideas has a chance of passing the usual way.

But it’s not easy. It requires almost 325,000 valid signatures of registered Washington voters – no duplicates allowed – submitted by December 30. That means organization and money, neither of which shows up at this point in the state Public Disclosure Commission reports.

It’s also worth noting that the initiative process was originally conceived as a way for the public to get the Legislature to address issues it was ignoring, not for lawmakers to force the Legislature to take up issues they couldn’t get enough support to consider on their own.

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