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Wednesday, May 31, 2023
May 31, 2023

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In Our View: Inform Voters on Initiatives

Bill that would add price tags of unfunded mandates to ballot good for Washington

The Columbian

When it comes time for voters to mark their ballots during an election, good decisions follow good information. An informed electorate will be well-equipped to cast votes that enhance the livability of their city, their county, their state or the country.

Washington’s initiative system long has served as a practical application of that philosophy, allowing the public to redress government’s shortcomings. Yet all too often, voters are drawn in by measures that sound good while failing to give those measures the due consideration they require. All too often they support budget-busting initiatives that are enticing in their ideology but unrealistic in their application. To help assuage that situation, the state House of Representatives should support Senate Bill 5175.

The bill, which passed the Senate with a bipartisan 41-8 vote, would add information to the ballot regarding the financial impact of a proposal. Specifically, for measures determined by the state budget office to impact the budget by at least $25 million, the following language would appear on the ballot, along with the measure’s title, next to the spot where voters mark “yes” or “no”: The state budget office has determined that this proposal would have an unfunded net impact of (amount) on the state general fund. This means other state spending may need to be reduced or taxes increased to implement the proposal.

The impetus for the bill clearly was last year’s Initiative 1351, which mandates reduced class sizes in the state’s public schools and was approved by 51 percent of voters. It is reasonable to surmise that many of those voters did not bother to read the initiative’s financial statement, which appeared in the Voters’ Pamphlet and suggested that the measure would cost $4.7 billion over a five-year period. Placing that information on the ballot likely would have altered the course of the election. Smaller class sizes? Sure, who wouldn’t support that? A $4.7 billion invoice? Well, the outcome likely would have been much different. Sometimes, voters get it wrong, and adding information to the ballot would improve the process.

Critics of SB 5175, ranging from professional initiative maven Tim Eyman to the American Civil Liberties Union, claim the bill would provide a death knell for Washington’s initiative process. They suggest that the proposal would keep signature gatherers from pursuing support for certain measures, and that the language to be included on the ballot would unfairly scuttle the possibility of any initiative being approved by voters.

The solution to that is rather simple: Don’t place unfunded mandates on the ballot. In 2000, voters overwhelmingly approved I-728, which also involved class sizes, and I-732, which dictated a cost-of-living salary increase for teachers. But the unfunded mandates were ignored, out of financial necessity, by the Legislature, and I-728 was repealed by lawmakers in 2012. I-1351 is certain to meet a similar fate, and it is a fate that is well-earned for a measure with no funding mechanism and a $4.7 billion price tag.

Washington’s initiative system is important and must be protected, but it is not inviolate. Allowing the cost of an initiative to be buried in the financial statement of the Voters’ Pamphlet, where voters might or might not seek it out, has encouraged initiative supporters to place feel-good measures on the ballot with no consideration for the impact on taxpayers. And it has caused voters to allow themselves to be duped by simplistic ballot titles that don’t tell the entire story. Placing more information on the ballot will lead to more informed voters, and that will be good for Washington.