Callaghan: The initiative is a tool, not an ideology

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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Democrats and self-described progressives who don’t like the initiative process don’t know their history. Initiative and referendum came out of the Progressive Movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. A coalition of organized labor and the small-farm organization called The Grange pushed lawmakers to put the issue before voters as a constitutional amendment. Voters approved it overwhelmingly in 1912.

It’s also a Western thing. Most states west of the Mississippi River have some form of direct democracy. Few states east of the river do.

Whenever I talk about the origins of the initiative and referendum and how they were designed to take back power from special interests, someone usually says that was then, not now. As with many other reforms, the folks with the money and the power figure out a way to use that money to keep that power. Once someone figured out that it was relatively cheap to hire signature gatherers to place a measure on the ballot — certainly cheaper than donating to legislative candidates and hiring lobbyists — the initiative was co-opted.

For the last decade or two, likely coinciding with the time that Tim Eyman discovered the initiative for fun and profit, criticism of the initiative has come from the left. This is also the period when federal court rulings said states can’t ban paid signature gathering or even per-signature bounties. And the same courts have blocked limits on donations to initiative — because, unlike politicians, you can’t corrupt an idea with money. But it also coincides with a period in state political history when Democrats have been pretty dominant. Not since 1982 has the party failed to hold at least one of the three power centers in the Legislature — the House, the Senate or the governor’s office. For three decades, they had a veto over legislation and often ran the whole show.

So it was conservatives who used the initiative more often. Not that long ago, however, the initiative was more often used by liberals, so much so that conservatives formed campaigns in the early ’80s to persuade voters not to sign “until you’ve read every line.”

Looking at reform

Every session brings legislation that seeks to “reform” the initiative. This year there is a proposed constitutional amendment to require initiatives that increase state spending to provide a revenue source to pay for it. Another would place limits on donations to initiative campaigns. But is our initiative process really in need of reform? Is it really an out-of-control tool that puts the state’s finances at risk?

State Treasurer Jim McIntire has been worried that the people who rate state bonds might think so, especially after the 2010 rejection of pop and candy taxes. If they perceive Washington as unstable, the state’s bond rating could suffer. So McIntire’s staff took a look. First they found that voters are discerning, that of the 139 initiatives that reached the ballot since 1914, 70 were rejected. Over the last decade, 31 measures made the ballot and 11 failed. And despite the perception that voters will always vote their pocketbooks, four ballot measures were rejected in the last decade even though the action meant higher taxes. The research also found that the courts and the Legislature have an active role in deciding whether initiatives are legal and constitutional or to amend them as the state’s circumstances changed.

After expressing concerns about the destabilizing effect of initiatives when they issued formal warnings on the state’s bond rating a year ago, the bond houses seemed comforted by last spring. “We have viewed the active voter initiative environment as limiting the state’s fiscal flexibility,” wrote S&P analysts in May. “However, the Legislature’s willingness and ability to set aside provisions of voter-approved initiatives when fiscal conditions warrant has proven beneficial to credit quality, in our view.”

Will this also comfort the initiative’s critics? Will it stem the flow of “reform” proposals? Probably not. So it is a good thing that since real changes will require another amendment to the state constitution, voters will have the final say.