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Opinion >  Column

Spin Control: No voter initiatives make the ballot again this year

A voter casts her ballot on Oct. 22, 2018 at the downtown Spokane Public Library.   (Libby Kamrowski/The Spokesman-Review)
A voter casts her ballot on Oct. 22, 2018 at the downtown Spokane Public Library.  (Libby Kamrowski/The Spokesman-Review)

For the fourth year in a row, Washington voters won’t be asked in November to decide an initiative that several hundred thousand of them have sent to the ballot.

The voter initiative – once a favorite tool of political activists, organized labor and well-heeled business interests – seems to be losing steam as an effective end-around to get a law onto the books when the Legislature can’t or won’t pass it.

The deadline for submitting signatures passed Friday and no one bothered to turn any in. That doesn’t mean no initiatives to the voters were filed this year or no money was spent in an effort to get them to the ballot. A total of 133 ideas, some well thought out and others mere shots in the dark, found their way and paid the requisite $5 fee into the Secretary of State’s office.

But that number isn’t really an indication of widespread discontent or a populist uprising against all things connected to state government. Most were the work of a handful of people who filed slight variations on a few ideas that struck their fancy, such as restriction or ending certain taxes, limiting rules for vaccinations or curbing the governor’s emergency powers.

Chief among the repeat initiative barkers are Tim Eyman, who has made a career out of the initiative game, and his conservative compatriot, Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen. Between them, Eyman and Walsh accounted for 81 of the proposals filed, or about 60% of the total.

Although he had a run of success getting anti-tax initiatives to the ballot with many of them gaining approval in past years, Eyman has filed and then abandoned so many proposals in recent years it is hard to take him seriously when he announces one now.

Plus, others have taken up the anti-tax cudgel. Wenatchee resident April Featherkile filed 15 different proposals to block the state’s pending capital gains tax. She didn’t get far with any of those proposals, but a separate group calling itself Repeal the Capital Gains Income Tax, did collect more than $700,000 on its effort, which was Initiative 1929.

It spent almost $480,000, with about $176,000 going to lawyers as the group sparred with the state Attorney General’s office over the wording of the ballot title and synopsis. It spent another $169,000 on various kinds of consultants before announcing last month that they would wait to see whether the state Supreme Court will rule against the tax in a pending lawsuit.

It seems as though the lawyers and consultants could have told sponsors very early, and for much less money, that they should just wait out the court. But that’s not how initiative game works.

Before the committee’s announcement, however, a group of progressive organizations formed a committee to defend the capital gains tax against Initiative 1929, calling itself No Tax Cut for the Super Rich, had raised nearly $1 million dollars in a combination of cash and in-kind contributions, preparing for the battle that wasn’t joined.

Should the state Supreme Court uphold the capital gains tax, it’s a safe bet the deep pockets of the repeal group will try again, and those of the no tax cut group will follow suit.

On one hand, this failure to push a voters’ initiative to the ballot seems strange in a state with such a long history of populist legislating. Washington is a place that legalized a wide range of things at the ballot box, including abortion, assisted suicide and recreational marijuana. They set up a system to keep track of politicians and their donors, and placed safety restrictions on firearms.

Initiatives sometimes show how public sentiments can change over time. In 1914, the first year the initiative process became legal, voters approved prohibition, repealed that in 1932 and opened it up to liquor by the drink in 1948.

Voters passed a state income tax in 1932, which was later rejected by the state Supreme Court and voters have consistently refused to pass another one, despite repeated attempts. They rejected daylight saving time in 1954 but approved it six years later.

The first year for initiatives saw seven make it to the ballot. That was the most ever, and for many years relatively few were filed and even fewer made the ballot. At times, the number of initiatives were a sign of voter discontent. They were used more frequently during the Great Depression in the 1930s, during the 1960s and 1990s.

By the ’90s, however, sponsors were more likely to rely on “signature gatherers” who received so much per name collected on a petition, rather than volunteers who were willing to devote days, weeks or months to collecting the needed names.

The second highest number of statewide initiatives to make the ballot was six in 2010, when voters approved two – limits on taxes as well as an end to the sales tax on candy and bottled water and an excise tax on soda – and rejected four others that included dueling measures to take the state out of the liquor business plus changes to the industrial insurance system and another income tax proposal.

That number was down to three by 2018, when voters banned sales taxes on food and approved several gun safety measures, including a ban on the sale of semiautomatic military style rifles to those younger than 21, but rejected a carbon emissions fee.

Legislators have tried in recent years to make it harder to get an initiative on the ballot by raising the filing fee – the $5 hasn’t changed since 1914 – requiring more signatures, banning paid signature gatherers or limiting the measures to even-numbered years when more people vote. That always brings cries of “foul” from people invested in the initiative process.

The recent history suggests the rules don’t need to be changed. The system seems to be regulating itself on its own.

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