Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, January 22, 2010

NPI advises Legislature to reform initiative process to safeguard direct democracy

Editor's Note: Yesterday the Senate Government Operations & Elections Committee held a hearing on SB 6449, prime sponsored by Senator Joe McDermott, which would require paid petitioners to register with the Public Disclosure Commission and allow the Secretary of State to disqualify initiative petitions that a signature gatherer has not certified as having been properly circulated. The following is a polished version of my notes on that bill, which served as the basis for my comments.

Madam Chair, Members of the Committee:

Good afternoon. For the record, my name is Andrew Villeneuve. I am the executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, a Redmond-based strategy center working to advance the common good through ideas and action.

I want to begin my remarks by thanking Senator McDermott for sponsoring this bill and initiating a discussion about protecting the spirit and integrity of the initiative processes. I'd like to offer some brief thoughts on the bill and suggest some improvements that could be incorporated as amendments.

First, we would urge the Committee to amend this bill to change the penalties so that signatures are not invalidated due to misconduct by petitioners. We believe that appropriate penalties are fines and revocation of the business license of a signature gathering firm that employs repeat offenders.

Second, we would urge the Committee to take a look at Win v. Warheit, the 1993 decision that found that a Washington statute requiring petitioners to publicly disclose themselves as signature gatherers to be unconstitutional.

The Committee should consider exempting a registry of signature gatherers (if such a registry is created) from the public disclosure law to avoid running afoul of the 9th Circuit's decision in that case.

Finally, I would like to observe that when the initiative process was first conceived, there was no such thing as a signature gathering industry.

Signature gathering has become a big business and signatures have become a commodity. The State of Washington has a public interest in regulating the initiative and referendum process to ensure that it is fair.

Thank you and I'm happy to answer questions you may have.

I also testified on SB 6665, sponsored by Senator Jeanine Kohl-Welles, which would raise the initiative filing fee from $5 to $250. The following is a polished version of my notes on that bill, which served as the basis for my comments.

Madam Chair, Members of the Committee:

Once again, good afternoon. I'd like to briefly speak to Senate Bill 6665, which would raise the filing fee in Washington State to $250.

Since the initiatrive process was first created ninety nine years ago, the fee to file an initiative in Washington State has remained at five dollars. The cost of a marriage license, the cost to incorporate, and the cost of providing countless other legal documents to the state, meanwhile, have gone up.

Our state currently faces a huge budget crisis. At a time when we lack the revenue to pay our expenses, it is unfathomable that we have let the initiative filing fee languish at five dollars. Every little bit counts.

What's more, we frequently hear the argument that people who use a public service offered by the state should pay their way. For example, citizens are not entitled to free or discounted copies of materials from the State Archives.

They have to pay a reasonable fee.

In the case of the initiative process, five dollars is not reasonable. Five dollars does not cover the state's costs. Five dollars is so low that an individual who wishes can repeatedly file near identical drafts of their proposal in the hope that the Attorney General's office will create slightly different ballot titles for each. Then, the sponsor can re-file the draft with the language that he or she will result in the best ballot title. This is known as ballot title shopping.

We've looked at filing fees in other states and found none so low as Washington's. Alaska's, for example, is $100. Wyoming charges $500 and so do Florida and Mississipi. California charges $200. States with no filing fee, we've found, require a minimum number of citizen cosponsors, public hearings, or other prerequisites before a signature drive can begin.

In summary, in these challenging times for our state, we believe it makes fiscal sense to raise the filing fee to cover the real costs of filing an initiative.

Thank you.


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