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

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Reforming the initiative process

I returned to Olympia today to attend a Senate Government Operations & Elections Committee hearing (representing NPI) and testify in support of several bills that would reform and strengthen the integrity of the initiative process. Among the bills we are supporting:
  • SB 5356 - Prohibiting payment of petitioners on a per-signature basis.
  • SB 5392 - Increasing the initiative filing fee.
  • SB 5181 - Requiring signature gatherers to wear identification.
  • SB 5182 - Requiring signature gatherers to sign initiative and referendum petitions (not as an expression of support, but to certify they circulated the petition or petitions).
Reforming the process and strengthening direct democracy has been for years a core focus of NPI's nearly five year old Permanent Defense division, which fights right wing initiatives and promotes the value of public services in addition to working for a better initiative process.

My prepared remarks for SB 5356, which is almost identical to a bill proposed by Representative Sherry Appleton in the House (prohibiting the compensation of petitioners on a per signature basis) were based on my testimony for HB 1087, which Jonathan posted on the Official Blog the day after the hearing.

The other proposals, however, have not had public hearings in the House of Representatives. Here are some excerpts from my remarks prepared for the last three bills on the bulleted list above.

On SB 5392:

One of the current problems with the process is that the current filing fee is insufficient to cover the administrative costs involved with the people’s right to initiative.

Some sponsors have taken advantage of this situation to repeatedly file initiatives with slightly different texts in the hopes of getting a better ballot title. This abuse, which is extremely unfortunate, needs to end and this bill is a simple, practical solution to the problem.

Other states currently require a filing fee that is fair and reasonable....a fee that's much higher than five dollars. California, for instance, has a $200 fee.

This is not a severe burden for low and middle income citizens...if ten citizens put ten dollars together, or if twenty citizens put five dollars together, there's the filing fee. Anyone with a good idea should be able to piece together the funds to cover the cost. We Americans are known for our resourcefulness, are we not?

On SB 5181:

This bill is simple, straightforward, and reasonable. It requires signature gatherers to wear identification which includes an indication of whether they are volunteers or paid. This specific requirement is in fact important because many citizens wonder this very question when they are approached by a petitioner who wants to obtain their signature.

The initiative process has become a cottage industry and it is a business which has remained largely unregulated despite the increasing number of instances of abuse. Senator Kastama’s bill is a sensible law that helps citizens learn more about the people who are so eagerly soliciting their signature, and we are pleased to support it. This is not a severe burden on free speech, therefore it is not ridiculously unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in its Buckley decision, (authored by Justice Ginsburg) noted that:
Colorado enacted the provision requiring initiative-petition circulators to wear identification badges in 1993, five years after our decision in Meyer. 1993 Colo. Sess. Laws, ch. 183, §1.18 The Tenth Circuit held the badge requirement invalid insofar as it requires circulators to display their names. See 120 F.3d, at 1104. The Court of Appeals did not rule on the constitutionality of other elements of the badge provision, namely the “requirements that the badge disclose whether the circulator is paid or a volunteer, and if paid, by whom.” Ibid. Nor do we.
SB 5181 does not require petitioners to wear nametags, so it is not unconstitutional.

On SB 5182:

More accountability and transparency are needed in the initiative process. Opponents of reform adamantly insist "you don't need to fix what isn't broken" - and they are pretending that nothing is broken, because they like the status quo - but there truly is a need for reform.

We expect our elected officials to be honest and open and we should expect the same of people who are engaged in citizen lawmaking.

Other states, such as Maine, require petitioners to appear before a notary and affirm that they witnessed the collection of every single signature on their petition. We've fallen behind other states when we should be taking the lead.

There have been serious cases of forgery in other states.

To say that there's no way that could happen in Washington is like saying your house could never be broken into.

The hearing was well attended. As expected, Tim Eyman and his friends showed up to act like victims of legislative overreach. Secretary of State Sam Reed sent his legislative liasion and an Assistant Director of Elections to provide background and testify in support of multiple bills, including the ban on paying by the signature, which Reed's representatives said the Sercretary believes preserves "the spirit" of the people's right to initiative.

Most of the room was filled with journalists, lobbyists, and observers who looked on and did not testify. Eyman tried his best to be a dominating force but was shut down by Chairwoman Darlene Fairley, who at one point had to warn Tim to use his "inside voice" and remind him that she wields the gavel.

Associated Press reporter David Ammons has a good writeup of the hearing (mostly focusing on SB 5653, the first bill on the list above). The article mentions our presence and also that of our allies:
The state Labor Council, Northwest Progressive Institute, initiative activist Steve Zemke, and others endorsed Kline's effort, calling it a friendly bill acceptable to those who cherish the process.
Ammons asked Fairley if she thought any bills would move forward out of committee, and she indicated several stood a chance of making it:
Similar bills have been introduced in the House. Fairley said that if the House passes the ban on per-signature payments, her committee likely will endorse it, with the full Senate vote still in question. The higher filing fee and requirement to sign each petitition page are likely to pass this session, she said.
It's good news that these bills are likely to move on. The people of Washington State expect their Legislature to act to preserve their liberties, including protecting the people's right to initiative, which is really what these bills are about. Direct democracy was instituted in our state during the Progressive Era - and progressive values include protection and fairness.

It should come as no surprise that the Democratic, progressive Washington State Legislature, which the voters elected in the last election, shares widespread citizen concerns about abuse of the initiative process.

If abuse is allowed to continue unchecked, the process is not being protected. Its integrity and spirit are compromised. That Secretary of State Sam Reed supports reform (he does not support all the bills, but he supports several of them) is a clear indication that this issue even transcends party lines.

A significant number of those opposed to change have an interest in maintaining the status quo and fighting against any improvements - the folks that work year after year to put right wing initiatives on the ballot, financed by a select group of wealthy individuals, lobbies, or even shadowy out of state special interests like the Howie Rich money machine (which helped the Farm Bureau make I-933 possible).

Their opposition must not be allowed to derail reform of the initiative process, which is critically important and immediately needed.

The Northwest Progressive Institute strongly urges lawmakers and the Governor to do everything they can to ensure the initiative process is used appropriately, ethically, and constitutionally - this legislative session.

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