Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Official Blog.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Initiative process reform moves forward

Two of the four Senate bills I testified in favor of on behalf of NPI were given a do pass recommendation in executive session of the Senate Government Operations & Elections Committee earlier this week.

SB 5182 (requiring signature gatherers to sign initiative and referendum petitions) and SB 5392 (increasing the filing fee) appear to be headed out of committee and into the next stage in the legislative process.

On the House side, Representative Sherry Appleton's bill to ban paying petitioners by the hour (HB 1087) is scheduled for executive session on February 13th. Its chances of receiving a "do pass" recommendation seem likely.

Seattle P-I columnist Joel Connelly, one of our favorite regional commentators, has a thoughtful column this morning about initiative process reform. Describing the recent history of direct democracy in this state, Connelly notes that it's "been taken over by the hired guns and powerful lobbies it was designed to thwart". He also observes the rise of Tim Eyman's initiative factory - and its recent lack of success:
Eyman initially lied about taking money, but used a succession of initiative drives to make a handsome income. A wizard of the sound bite, he was able to manipulate major media -- especially The Associated Press -- into serving as his sounding board.

But the anti-tax crusader stimulated a growing reaction.

The state's most popular liberal blog site ( and best grassroots research outfit (the Northwest Progressive Institute) have risen from citizen activist ranks to counter Eyman.
Let me pause here to say that all of us at NPI deeply appreciate the accolade. We work hard, we try to be thorough - and it's nice to be recognized. And while we've come a long way from our very humble beginnings, we're really just getting started.

While Joel doesn't support all of the proposed bills, (he does support increasing the filing fee and banning paying by the signature) he was kind enough to listen to our perspective on the issue, and allow us ink as well as pixels:
A second proposal, SB 5182, would require that a signature-gatherer sign a declaration and provide an address -- on the back of every page containing initiative signatures.

"Anyone who puts themselves out in the political sphere potentially risks harassment," said Andrew Villeneuve, executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute and a backer of the proposal. "People who run for office have to file ... and put up with a lot of flak, a lot of criticism, a lot of attention," he added. "If we're going to let petitioners off the hook, why not candidates as well?"

My take is different: What if I volunteer to circulate a petition in a place where the cause is unpopular? Say, it's a gun control initiative in Okanogan County, or repeal of gay civil rights legislation on Seattle's Capitol Hill.
What I meant by my comments above, of course, is that while harassment is certainly deplorable, it's sadly not unusual. Why do we put candidates through so much? Because we want them to be honest and accountable. It's an issue of openness. The initiative process is being abused - more transparency is needed.

But change is not going to happen on its own. The interests that benefit from the status quo are opposed to reform - so oversight and regulation are needed. Disclosure laws haven't just happened over the years; they've been instituted to address corruption.

Senate Government Operations & Elections Chair Darlene Fairley noted at last week's hearing that legislators' home addresses can easily be found through unSoundPolitics' database of registered voters. Similar information is available in the Public Disclosure Commission's databases.

The Internet has made it rather easy to look up information about a person, whether it be an address, background information, or public records.

Should we get rid of public disclosure laws because contributing to a campaign means your name and address goes into a publicly available database? Money is free speech, after all (according to the United States Supreme Court) and free speech is arguably the most important First Amendment right of them all.

Tim Eyman and his wealthy financial backer Michael Dunmire of Woodinville want to have it both ways. They show up in Olympia to rail against (what they label as) attacks on the people's right of initiative before legislators. At the same time, they call for and demand more accountability of elected officials.

In fact, the first Eyman initiative Dunmire financed - Initiative 900 in 2005, a measure which gave way too much power to the state auditor's office to conduct performance audits - was sold on that theme. So government needs to be more transparent, but the same principle does not apply to the cottage industry that has sprung up around the initiative process. Nice double standard.

Dunmire announced today that he's donating several hundred thousand dollars to Eyman's campaign in response to the proposed bills to reform the initiative process. In an email to Eyman's supporters, Dunmire wrote:
I had told Tim as recently as December that because of other business and charitable commitments that I wasn't going to be able to financially support it [Eyman's 2007 initiative] (despite Tim's repeated requests).

But something changed my mind. For two weeks, I've joined other citizens in Olympia at three legislative hearings on various anti-initiative bills. And I am truly offended by what I've seen and heard.
And you really expect us to buy that? That you had absolutely no intention of contributing to Eyman's "Minority Rules" initiative before next July? Interesting how this is the first we've heard of that decision.

As recently the month before last, you also contributed a sizable chunk of change to Eyman's personal compensation fund - rewarding him for failure in 2006.

If you've been making other important charitable commitments lately, why did you dump so much money ($100,000, donated on December 13th, 2006) into the personal bank account of a man who wasted what you donated to him last year for Initiative 917 (a total sum of $432,700)?

Eyman has been using this tack for years - the "backlash" theme. The Legislature does something he does not like - in this case, act to strengthen the integrity of the initiative process - and he responds with his "they've kicked the hornet's nest" schtick. That is getting so old.

In 2003, when the Legislature increased the gas tax, Eyman promised repeal. A repeal effort never materialized. He then promised revenge in the form of his initiative to destroy funding for local public services (I-864) but that flopped as well.

Then Eyman said the Legislature would pay for passing the 2005 Transportation Package and gleefully predicted the passage of I-912. It failed. And then just last year he said his attempt to repeal the other half of the package - Initiative 917 - would be wildly popular. It wasn't, and didn't make the ballot. Also last year, he said the public was clamoring to vote on the amended anti-discrimination law. But he didn't even get the minimum number of signatures required for a referendum bid.

Time and again, Eyman has tried to scare the Legislature and his promised vengeance has all come to nothing. Lawmakers in Olympia must act in the public's best interest and not be afraid of his blustering and threats.

We had no reason to believe Eyman's initiative factory was going to grind to a halt this year. So what if Michael Dunmire is putting money into I-954? We expected him to. Eyman's track record certainly doesn't suggest he'll be successful this year, even if he does make the ballot.

Improving direct democracy isn't about weakening Eyman. The proposed reforms are hardly going to hamper Eyman's continued operation. Tim, of course, claims otherwise. He told supporters today that because of the proposed reforms, "this year's initiative may very well be the last one we ever do".

If that were really true, it would be a blessing, but it's an extremely unlikely outcome. Eyman has actually put himself out of business over the years with his complete disregard for honesty and citizens with a different point of view. And the electorate is sick of right wing initiatives. I-920 and I-933 were defeated in landslide victories last November.

Eyman seems more interested in making money than doing anything else. All he did for the second half of 2006 was shake his electronic tin cup. He made a tidy profit...for accomplishing nothing.

We commend the Legislature for moving forward to strengthen the integrity of the initiative process. It's about time action was taken to curb the abuse.

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