In Our View: Refine Initiatives?

Gregoire, legislators explore several ideasfor making government more effective

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When innovative ideas make their way into discussions at company board rooms or around family dinner tables, one comment and a question are often heard: “Great idea! How are we going to pay for it?”

Governments cannot always operate like businesses and families, but it’s wise to follow that guideline whenever possible. And a few innovative ideas that have surfaced recently in Olympia are worth pursuing. Although details remain sketchy, the proposals could save tax dollars and make state government more efficient. Encouragingly, the ideas are drawing support from both Democrats and Republicans.

First, there’s the belief that the state’s initiative system can be modified in ways that reduce or remove financial predicaments often caused by the voter-approved measures. Here’s an example: Last month, Washington voters approved Initiative 1165, which expands the training of long-term care workers. But the ballot measure contained no prescribed method of paying for that new training. Now legislators — who have wrestled with revenue shortfalls for years — are scrambling to find a way to pay I-1165’s two-year cost of $18 million.

Should payment instructions have been included in the initiative? That question certainly deserves an answer. According to an Associated Press story, Gov. Chris Gregoire says she would “probably” support a constitutional amendment requiring ballot measures to have their own funding sources. That would be similar to the legislative process, in which bills typically contain fiscal impact statements.

Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt shares Gregoire’s belief that financial accountability — encased in ballot measures — could make initiatives more effective. Often, “people don’t realize the consequences” of voting for initiatives, Hewitt said recently. That was evident in what happened with I-1165: Democrat Gregoire and Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna were among the bipartisan opponents of the measure, yet it passed in each of the 39 counties, indeed with 65 percent approval statewide (66.6 percent in Clark County).

A spokesman for the union that represents care workers, Adam Glickman, said his group would “be open to considering a change in the initiative process that required any initiatives to ultimately be budget neutral.” That takes this issue one step further; even initiatives that eliminate a tax or a funding source would have to detail areas where cuts would be made. For example, a ballot measure last year repealed taxes on candy, gum, pop, bottled water and some processed foods, leaving legislators with a $218 million hole in the two-year budget, but with no recommendations on how to fill it.

Some might argue that legislators are elected to make these difficult decisions. That’s true, but the initiative process in and of itself promotes citizen participation. And with more clear budget instructions, initiatives could become even more powerful, and voters would be better informed about long-range results when they cast their ballots.

How this plays out remains to be seen, but it’s good to see leaders at least considering the idea of stabilizing the state’s governing process by making initiatives more instructive.

There are other possible changes coming from Gregoire’s creative mind, and they warrant full attention by lawmakers. She wonders if the state’s lottery could “be done better and produce more revenue” if it were privatized. She also believes other state tasks should be privatized and put out to competitive bid, endeavors such as bulk printing, website development and some government mail services.

Washingtonians should welcome the full exploration of these innovative ideas.