Even grassroots can’t sprout without money

The effect that tax-cutting initiatives have had on elected leaders is inarguable. Few, if any, would claim that the specter of Tim Eyman doesn’t hover over them like a sledgehammer whenever they even think about raising a tax.

Indeed, some of them – even some Democrats – admit privately that Eyman’s tax-cutting initiatives have improved government by forcing it to make tough but necessary choices and deliver services more efficiently. Some will also admit that the initiative process provides a needed counterbalance to well-funded special interests.

Regrettably, in taking on entrenched special interests, the initiative process has been all but overtaken by those same interests.

Just look at the spending it took to get initiatives on the ballot this year. Herald political writer Jerry Cornfield reported Sunday that backers of the four initiatives likely to appear on the November ballot had raised more than $2 million combined, and that nearly half of that was paid to firms that gather voter signatures. Yep, initiative signature-gathering is now an industry.

Two measures that fell short of the required number of signatures, one increasing penalties against sex offenders and one that would deny government benefits to illegal aliens, only collected a combined $31,000.

Even when it comes to “grassroots” movements, money talks. Which pretty much takes the “grassroots” out of the initiative movement.

That’s not necessarily bad – well-funded interests campaign against initiatives, too. But voters should understand that there’s usually big money on both sides of a ballot issue.

The campaign for Initiative 920, which would repeal Washington’s estate tax, already has received more than $600,000 from Seattle developer Martin Selig. Other business interests also support I-920, which will be opposed by the state’s largest teachers union and other education interests. The estate tax is expected to rake in almost half a billion dollars over the next five years, and all of it is earmarked for education.

Initiative 937, which would require large utilities like the Snohomish County PUD to get at least 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar – for the most part hydropower, by far the PUD’s biggest source, doesn’t count – has gathered more than $450,000 to date, mostly from environmental groups and firms engaged in energy efficiency or wind power.

Big spending is also expected on both sides of Eyman’s I-917, which again seeks to cap vehicle license fees at $30, and I-933, which would require government either to compensate property owners when land-use rules lower the value of their land or waive the rules.

Gone, apparently, are the days when a good idea could get traction on its own. Without political consultants, attorneys and paid signature-gatherers, the voice of the people can’t make much noise.

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