OLYMPIA — This sounds familiar.
Voters carve a popular idea into state law with an initiative. Then lawmakers say money isn’t available to carry it out and wish aloud that voters had realized this when they marked their ballots.
It’s been a lament of lawmakers when they’ve suspended the voters’ mandate in Initiative 732 to give public school teachers annual cost of living adjustments. And they also voiced it when they delayed carrying out the voters’ demand of I-1029 to increase training for home health care workers.
Now, Initiative 1351 is stirring similar comments. Its demand for smaller classes in all grade levels of public schools will cost an estimated $1 billion a year. That’s causing headaches for lawmakers already operating under a court order to boost funding for schools.
Its passage is also inspiring Republicans and Democrats in both chambers to seek changes in the initiative process to make voters aware of the financial consequences of ballot measures.
More than half the state Senate is sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment intended to keep costly measures off the ballot unless they have a means of paying for themselves. There’s a companion version in the House.
Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, the amendment’s author, has also introduced Senate Bill 5715 to require the estimated cost of an initiative be put on the ballot itself where voters can read it before they make their mark. As proposed, the fiscal impact would be part of the ballot title.
If voters are going to exercise their initiative power to legislate they should do so with knowledge of any significant fiscal impacts, he said.
“I believe the initiative process is sacred. I want to strengthen it,” he said. “What I want to see is voters having the complete picture put in front of them when they have to make an important decision.”
As of Tuesday morning, none of the bill had yet been scheduled for a public hearing. Fain said he isn’t worried, and is tweaking the language of his bills in ways he hopes will win support.
Initiative entrepreneur Tim Eyman of Mukilteo blasted Fain, saying his efforts are aimed at silencing the citizenry.
“Sen. Fain seems to have developed a bizarre obsession with throwing monkey wrenches into the citizens’ initiative process this session,” Eyman wrote in an email. “He’s floundering around, throwing stupid idea after stupid idea at the wall and hoping something will stick.”
Eyman said the constitutional amendment as originally drafted would keep many initiatives from reaching a ballot. And he said the other bill would unfairly influence voters who can find all the same information in fiscal impact statements in the voter pamphlet.
“Ballot titles are legally required to not create bias for or against the initiative and must be impartial and non-argumentative,” he said. “This joke of a bill violates this neutrality law by purposely injecting obvious bias.”
Proposals for initiative reforms seemingly surface in every legislative session without much success.
This year could turn out differently because of the number of lawmakers in both parties who don’t believe voters fully understood the amount of money required to ensure there are fewer students in classrooms.
“When you have an astronomical budget-buster as 1351 was it gets everybody focused on what other information do we need to make sure voters have when they make their decision,” said Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform of the Washington Policy Center.
He said SB 5715 won’t change the initiative process but ensures the dollars and cents is right up front where voters will see it before filling in the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ bubble.
“The experience today will be the experience tomorrow,” he said.
Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, isn’t sold on the need for such change. That’s important because he’s chairman of the House State Government Committee where initiative reforms such as Fain’s bills would land if they clear the Senate.
“I don’t want to cripple the initiative process to where everyone looks at an initiative and says this has a cost, we’re not going to do it,” he said.
Hunt said he worked on the successful initiative to repeal sales tax on food and wonders how voters might have acted had the proposed changes been in place then.
Fain said he knows there’s opposition to tinkering with a process created by the state’s founders. He said his efforts are simply to make sure it is working as intended and voters know what they are legislating, and he’s not convinced the majority did when they passed I-1351.
“There is a concept out there of getting something for nothing,” he said. “It’s a concept that doesn’t work in business, it doesn’t work in our personal life and it doesn’t work in government.
“At the end of the day if (the opponents’) argument is the public should pass initiatives with multibillion-dollar liabilities and not have any way to pay for them, that’s a position I disagree with,” he said.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.