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In Our View: Ballot initiatives require public discussions

The Columbian
Published: February 7, 2024, 6:03am

While elections for U.S. president, state executives and legislators will be on the ballot this November in Washington, initiatives concerning policy might be the most important items for the future of the state. Democrats in Olympia should be eager to open discussion about issues that impact the daily lives of residents.

Six measures designed to overturn recent legislation have qualified for the ballot by garnering the required number of signatures from registered voters. These take aim at issues such as the Climate Commitment Act, the capital gains tax and parameters for police pursuits.

The 2-year-old Climate Commitment Act seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by charging polluting companies. Businesses may purchase additional allowances, and those sales have raised approximately $1.5 billion in their first year, with funds going toward efforts for fighting climate change. Critics of the program say the costs are being passed along to consumers, resulting in a hidden tax.

Initiative 2117 would overturn the law, and the fact that hundreds of thousands of signatures were gathered should be eye-opening for lawmakers. But thus far, Democrats who control both chambers of the Legislature have been reluctant to engage in a public discussion.

Such obfuscation not only belies the duty of legislators, it is not politically expedient. Initiative 2117 and other measures promoted by conservative activists will garner plenty of attention as the election draws near; ignoring them now will not make them go away and will allow the discussion to be dominated by propaganda from both sides of the issues.

With each initiative that has qualified for the ballot, lawmakers can choose one of three options: Adopt the measure as written; decline to act and have the measures appear on the ballot; or propose an alternative to also appear before voters in November.

Choosing the path that best benefits the people of Washington requires transparent discussion while lawmakers are gathered in Olympia for a legislative session that ends March 7. Various committees should be holding hearings to garner public input, weigh potential impacts and demonstrate an understanding of the seriousness of the ballot measures.

Democrats, however, have declined to address the issues in a public forum. Gov. Jay Inslee has suggested that discussing the initiatives without a plan to pass them or develop an alternative is a waste of time. Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, has said lawmakers are studying the issues and seeking legal advice.

Indeed, the initiatives are complex issues that require a full understanding from decision-makers. But they also require that lawmakers listen to the public and develop an understanding of the breadth of public opposition to previous legislative actions.

Overturning the Climate Commitment Act, for example, would deprive the state of billions of dollars for infrastructure improvements and climate initiatives. Overturning the capital gains tax would remove a revenue source that raised $890 million in its first year for early learning, child care programs and school districts.

If approved by voters, the initiatives would undermine several years worth of laborious and important work from lawmakers. Democrats will be eager to defend that work in November, but first they should glean an understanding of where the public stands on the issues and should endeavor to provide as much accurate information as possible. Holding public hearings now is essential for those purposes.

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