Our initiative process needs to change | Don Brunell

Would you buy a new car or a new house without knowing how you’ll pay for it? Of course not. But Washington voters do something similar every time they approve a costly initiative without specifying how it will be paid for.

Would you buy a new car or a new house without knowing how you’ll pay for it? Of course not. But Washington voters do something similar every time they approve a costly initiative without specifying how it will be paid for.

That needs to change.

In 2000, voters overwhelmingly approved two initiatives to hire more teachers and provide annual cost of living increases for all K-12 school employees and faculty at community and technical colleges.

Even though the measures would increase spending by hundreds of millions of dollars, neither initiative identified a source of new funding. Within a couple of years, the cash-strapped Legislature suspended both measures.

In 2004 and 2010, voters were asked to approve new taxes to pay for those suspended education initiatives. They overwhelmingly refused.

That didn’t stop voters from approving two more costly initiatives in 2008 and 2011, neither of which identified a source of funding. Both have since been suspended by lawmakers.

It’s easy to support well-intentioned programs, especially when you don’t have to decide how to pay for them. We got away with it during good times, because the new programs and services were paid for with surpluses and growing tax receipts.

Those days are over.

But initiative backers realize that it’s much harder to get voters to approve your measure if the price tag is staring them in the face.

For example, last year, the Service Employees International Union wanted to put an initiative on the ballot that would reinstate training and certification requirements for long-term care workers. Those requirements had originally been part of an initiative approved by voters in 2008, but lawmakers suspended them for lack of funds.

SEIU had filed several versions of its “reinstatement” initiative with the Secretary of State that did identify funding sources — a $1 per pack cigarette tax increase, a $1 per liter liquor tax increase, or various other tax increases. In the end, they chose the version that did not specify how it would be paid for. It was approved by voters but never funded by lawmakers.

What about the courts? Couldn’t they step in and force lawmakers to fund these programs? Perhaps not.

In 2010, the State Supreme Court was asked to compel Gov. Gregoire to include funding in her budget for wage increases that had been awarded by an arbitrator to home health workers.  The court declined, citing the governor’s discretionary budgetary power.

In reality, all this turmoil is unnecessary. There would be no need to force funding of suspended initiatives if all initiatives placed on the ballot were required to specify what they will cost and how they will be paid for.

However, this may not happen anytime soon. After all, it’s far easier to get voters to approve new spending if they don’t have to think about how to pay for it.

Perhaps initiative backers are content to know that, even if those costly obligations are delayed or suspended, they stay on the books. When the economy begins to recover, the added costs from all those suspended initiatives will kick in again.

But it’s time to stop playing games with our initiative process. Voters have a right — and an obligation — to know how ballot initiatives will be paid for.


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