Officials oppose Eyman's initiative on initiatives

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OLYMPIA — A few big names in Washington politics are lining up against Tim Eyman's latest initiative on initiatives, including some who backed his previous ballot ideas on tax control and audits.

Former state Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, and former auditor Brian Sonntag, a conservative Democrat, both helped write the voter pamphlet statements against Eyman's Initiative 517. The measure proposes to expand the right of initiative signature-gatherers by creating a 25-foot harassment-free zone around them.

I-517 also gives initiative sponsors up to six extra months to collect signatures and qualify their measure for the ballot. And it bars any action to keep a local government initiative from the ballot if sponsors have proper signatures.

The No on I-517 coalition includes Republican ex-secretaries of state Sam Reed and Ralph Munro, Northwest Progressive Institute's Andrew Villeneuve, and business interests. They all say I-517 infringes on private property rights by limiting a business owner's ability to control petition-signature activities in front of a store.

"I have supported him in the past. He stepped over the line. This initiative to us is all about his attempt at taking over private-property rights of retail stores," said No on I-517 campaign leader Jan Gee, a veteran Olympia lobbyist with the Washington Food Industry Association. "He really has tipped the balance. In our opinion, it's unconstitutional."

In a sign the times might really be changing for Eyman, the normally talkative initiative promoter refused to talk about I-517 last week — or address the lack of cash the Yes on 517 campaign has generated.

Eyman said he no longer is working on the campaign because he's so busy working on a new project to change the state constitution's requirements for tax increases that he lacks time for anything else.

Two others — Mark Baerwaldt, who said he previously fought for Puget Sound-area initiatives on stadiums and car-tab taxes, and Eddie Agazarm, who has run a signature-gathering outfit often employed by Eyman's initiative campaigns -- are running the show on I-517.

Baerwaldt declined to say exactly how the campaign will be waged without Eyman or what kind of fundraising is planned. But Baerwaldt described himself as a fierce campaigner who prefers "fact-based" tactics, and he disputed opponents' claims that I-517 infringes on property rights.

Rather, Baerwaldt said, "there are some very important technical common-sense repairs that need to be made to the initiative process, and I-517 does that perfectly."

I-517 would treat all initiatives the same. Under current law, he said local initiatives can be excluded from the ballot — even if they qualified with enough signatures. That is different from state initiatives, which are presumed to go onto the ballot if enough signatures are gathered. The state Supreme Court has refused to bar state measures from the ballot even where constitutional questions were raised.

I-517 also provides an extra six months for signature gathering on statewide measures and protects signature gatherers from harassment by "decline to sign" campaigns. The Yes on 517 campaign says campaign workers are sometimes bullied as they try to get signatures.

Baerwaldt said both sides would benefit from the 25-foot protective bubble around signature gatherers and a threat of criminal penalties for interfering with petitioners. "Everybody will be more respectful because they have to be," he said.

Opponents disagree, saying that I-517 will make it harder for merchants to deal with unruly petitioners who harass customers, and they say that is a bigger problem than harassment of petitioners. The property-rights issue is a top concern cited by Gee, Munro, Sonntag and Reed.

"I think initiatives take a real delicate balance to figure out exactly what the right formula is. What Mr. Eyman is proposing I think tips the balance in his favor or in the favor of people who just make a living at this. I don't agree with that. I always saw this as a citizen's right, and it needs to be respected," said Munro, who served five terms as secretary of state overseeing state elections.

"I really don't want to be bothered inside a grocery store by somebody pushing a petition in my face," Munro said. "He's hoping this will just slip by — that people won't wake up to it. I don't think people realize what he's proposing."

Sonntag, who backed Eyman's initiative on performance audits in 2005, said his concern is not with Eyman but what the initiative does to protect "sometimes overzealous, overeager signature gatherers." He said the right of initiative is a strength of the state constitution but that he thinks the law must also respect businesses and customers who don't want to be bothered.

Reed, who retired in January after three terms as secretary of state, said other provisions worry him — such as the one that guarantees local-government initiatives a place on the ballot if they gather sufficient signatures.

Reed said "changing some of the requirements for cities and counties to have them go on ballot even if they are illegal or invalid doesn't make a lot of sense. So I think it is very important we protect this (initiative process). I think this is a political sacred cow in Washington. And I think it's important it is done right."

McKenna, who had backed an Eyman initiative on capping property tax increases more than a decade ago, could not be reached to comment on why he helped Villeneuve, Sonntag and others write the voter pamphlet statement against I-517.

Baerwaldt said the claims about taking away property rights are "false."

He cited a 2007 opinion issued by the Attorney General's Office during McKenna's tenure and two Supreme Court rulings that make clear petition-gatherers can collect signatures for initiatives and referendums at shopping malls. He said this right extends to supermarkets, grocery stores and big-box stores where other activities such as Girl Scout cookie sales are permitted by managers — and also extends to any public facility such as a football or baseball stadium.

"I-517 doesn't change anything in those decisions. It clarifies," Baerwaldt said.In its voter pamphlet statement, the No on 517 campaign lambastes the measure as a tool that will make it easier for Eyman and others profiting off the initiative process to make more money.

"The proponents' goal is to make it easier and cheaper to do signature drives — I think that's evident to anyone who has taken a critical look at this measure," said Villeneuve, a longtime nemesis of Eyman, who created a PAC called Stop Eyman's Profit Machine but now is merging that effort with the No on 517 campaign.

"Tim Eyman is in the business of sponsoring and promoting initiatives; Eddie Agazarm is in the business of qualifying them. They are trying to help themselves with I-517, and they don't care if they trample over the property rights and First Amendment rights of other Washingtonians in the process," Villeneuve added.

Villeneuve predicted that a broad coalition will develop in the buildup to the Nov. 5 election. The Association of Washington Business is expected to join the no side, and so may the League of Education Voters.

Records filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission show that all of the $305,454 raised for I-517 was in-kind contributions last year, most of it from a Virginia-based group that advocates for initiative rights. The rest was from Agazarm, paid-signature gatherers or firms that collect signatures for pay.

The way I-517's signatures were gathered is under investigation by the PDC. Eyman, the sponsor, has denied wrongdoing. But Sherry Bockwinkel, former operator of a signature-gathering company, contends that signature gatherers used by Eyman and Agazarm for I-1185 last year were pressured into also collecting signatures for I-517 and that this illegal subsidy of I-517 was not properly reported to the PDC.

The PDC is hoping to finish its investigation before the election, spokeswoman Lori Anderson said.