Washington state’s initiative process isn’t perfect.
At their best, initiatives are as close as we come to direct democracy, resulting in state law that, whether you agree or disagree, represents the will of voters. Initiative 594, which required background checks for most all sales and transfers of firearms, is one example.
Often, however, initiatives can result in unintended consequences. Without specifically stating a source of funding, I-1351, which sought to lower classroom sizes in the state, arrived at the same time the Legislature was sorting out its Supreme Court mandate to amply fund K-12 education and was suspended for four years.
Or an initiative’s language or intent can be flawed, run afoul of the state constitution and can be struck down by the courts, as has happened most recently with initiative pitcher Tim Eyman’s I-1185, which sought a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to increase taxes and was struck down in 2013.
But, good law or bad, one principle of initiatives remains: As long as an initiative’s supporters can gather enough signatures to demonstrate a certain level of support to justify a spot on the ballot, the first pass on its merits should be left to the voters.
A day after Eyman’s latest measure, I-1366, was certified for the ballot, opponents sought to bump it off the November election. Initiative 1366, if passed, would force a choice on the Legislature: Either put an amendment to the state constitution on the ballot that would make the two-thirds requirement to raise taxes law, or accept a penny reduction of the state’s sales tax to 5.5 cents from 6.5 cents per dollar spent.
“Initiative 1366 is blackmail and would be incredibly damaging,” Eden Mack, a Seattle parent of three schoolchildren, and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told the Seattle Times. Opponents believe the initiative is a back-door attempt to change the state constitution by initiative, which the constitution does not allow.
It certainly is leverage, not unlike Senate Republicans’ “poison pill” threat to pull public transportation funds if the governor proceeded with plans for a clean-fuels standard.
We’ll wait to weigh in on the merits of Eyman’s initiative until we’ve heard from both sides. But the Supreme Court has been clear on at least two occasions, in 2005 and 2007, that an initiative can’t be challenged until the voters have first made it law. The right to the initiative process, the court said, was nearly as old as the constitution itself and ingrained in the state’s history. In 2007, the court’s opinion regarding an attempt to keep Eyman’s I-960 off the ballot, ended with this: “Further, substantive pre-election review could unduly infringe on the citizens’ right to freely express their views to their elected representatives.”
Whether an initiative is constitutionally flawed is a decision best left to the courts, but even a flawed initiative can serve a purpose in furthering the debate about an issue and in informing lawmakers and officials about the mood and priorities of the public.
Supporters and opponents of initiatives in general and I-1366 in particular should make their case first to the voters, then, if necessary, to the courts.
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