Initiatives here to stay so pols better deal with it

Tuesday’s election showed that initiatives are increasingly becoming a key way to make major government decisions in Washington.

Whether one likes the trend for people to take decisions out of the hands of elected representatives or not, it’s time to recognize the growing role to direct democracy. State residents and their political leaders should begin thinking about making adjustments that reflect the change.

Tim Eyman’s Initiative 747 rolled to an easy victory. Its main thrust is to limit the ability of elected officials to make tax decisions without a vote of the people. But the initiative binge is anything but an Eyman-only phenomenon. Indeed, some of those who like to treat him as a poster child for poor public policymaking are running their own initiatives.

All told, 10 initiatives to the people have passed in four years, the most rapid pace in state history. The previous highwater mark was 10 over six years, 1932-38.

This year, even while property tax hikes were being limited by I-747, Initiative 773 enacted a huge tax increase on tobacco. Another initiative set up a new bureaucracy for overseeing in-home health care and paved the way for unionization of care workers.

Those are such contradictory decisions that one must ask: Do people know what they want? But they do. They want to decide for themselves on many major issues.

That trend is not the end of representative democracy, as Eyman tried to point out in the face of heavy campaign rhetoric. It is a simple reality, one that we shouldn’t find too surprising in a state where people have long treasured the power of the initiative and the referendum.

New realities call for adjustment and reassessment. If voters themselves are going to make so many of the major financial decisions for the state, does the Legislature have to meet every year? Maybe not. Certainly, the presumption must be that the Legislature should be in session fewer days whenever it meets, in both budget years and non-budget years.

And we ought to ask ourselves whether we really need two houses of the Legislature. Look at the split in the state House and Senate after this election. There is an absolutely identical 25-24 ratio in favor of Democrats in both houses: 50-48 in the House of Representatives and 25-24 in the Senate. What’s the difference between one and the other?

Of course, some of the motivation behind our questioning (and behind some of the public’s voting) is pure frustration with the Legislature. Last year’s legislative session was a colossal exercise in partisanship, irresponsibility and gridlock. Tuesday’s election at least erased the gridlock excuse, by breaking the House of Representatives’ tie between Democrats and Republicans.

Democrats now have an opportunity to show that they are willing and able to exercise power responsibly. If they do, perhaps the trend toward government by initiative may be slowed somewhat, but don’t plan on a halt to initiative lawmaking. Politicians and the public ought to be thinking instead about how to make the best of the new reality.

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