A group of Repub­li­cans in Wash­ing­ton’s state Sen­ate, includ­ing Minor­i­ty Leader Mike Hewitt and Repub­li­can floor leader Mark Schoesler, have teamed up with two Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tors (Nick Harp­er, Deb­bie Regala) to pro­pose a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment that would pro­hib­it unfund­ed mandates.

(An unfund­ed man­date is an ini­tia­tive that cre­ates a new ser­vice or requires a ser­vice to be pro­vid­ed by the state, but does not spec­i­fy a way to pay for it).

The amend­ment, which is still in draft form, was pre­filed today as Sen­ate Joint Res­o­lu­tion (SJR) 8218. We have added it to the Olympia News­riv­er under Open Gov­ern­ment & Elec­tions, and we invite you to join us in track­ing its evolution.

The amend­ment would add the fol­low­ing text to Arti­cle II, Sec­tion 1 under sub­sec­tion (a), which describes the ini­tia­tive power:

No ini­tia­tive may be placed on the bal­lot if it is deter­mined by the sec­re­tary of state that the ini­tia­tive fails to pro­vide a new or enhanced rev­enue source to pay for any increase instate oblig­a­tions or duties that are cre­at­ed by the ini­tia­tive. The office of the gov­er­nor, or a sub­di­vi­sion there­of, in con­sul­ta­tion with the sec­re­tary of state, the attor­ney gen­er­al, and any oth­er appro­pri­ate state or local agency, shall pre­pare a fis­cal impact state­ment for an ini­tia­tive. A fis­cal impact state­ment must describe any pro­ject­ed increase or decrease in rev­enues, costs, expen­di­tures, or indebt­ed­ness that the state or local gov­ern­ments will expe­ri­ence if the bal­lot mea­sure were approved by state vot­ers. A fis­cal impact state­ment must indi­cate by fis­cal year the impact for the remain­der of the bien­ni­um inwhich the bill or res­o­lu­tion will first take effect as well as a cumu­la­tive fore­cast of the fis­cal impact for the suc­ceed­ing four fis­cal years.

The Asso­ci­at­ed Press’ Mike Bak­er, who works out of the AP’s Olympia bureau, got reac­tion to the pro­posed amend­ment from Gov­er­nor Chris Gre­goire, SEIU Health­care 775NW, and ini­tia­tive prof­i­teer Tim Eyman. Gre­goire is sup­port­ive; SEIU has reser­va­tions, and Eyman is opposed (no sur­prise there).

NPI shares SEIU’s view.

Adam Glick­man, a spokesman for the union that rep­re­sents care work­ers and sup­port­ed Ini­tia­tive 1163, said his group was inter­est­ed in new ini­tia­tive rules, as long as they had sim­i­lar restric­tions for mea­sures cut­ting the bud­get. For exam­ple, if an ini­tia­tive elim­i­nates a tax or fund­ing source, the pro­pos­al would have to detail an area to cut.

“We’d be open to con­sid­er­ing a change in the ini­tia­tive process that required any ini­tia­tives to ulti­mate­ly be bud­get neu­tral,” Glick­man said.

In its cur­rent form, the draft amend­ment does­n’t require that ini­tia­tives be bud­get neu­tral — it sim­ply pro­hibits unfund­ed man­dates. But, as Glick­man points out, that’s just one side of the coin. Ini­tia­tives that slash or squeeze rev­enue with­out spec­i­fy­ing cuts (Tim Eyman’s favorite kind) are sim­i­lar­ly prob­lem­at­ic, and those ought to be pro­hib­it­ed as well, if we’re going to change the rules.

Wash­ing­ton State arguably has the fewest lim­its on the ini­tia­tive process of any state in Amer­i­ca (with one major excep­tion: our ini­tia­tive process can­not be used to amend our state Con­sti­tu­tion). Most oth­er states have more strin­gent require­ments for get­ting statu­to­ry ini­tia­tives on the bal­lot than we do.

Utah, for instance, spec­i­fies that the spon­sors of a pro­posed ini­tia­tive must hold a cer­tain num­ber of pub­lic hear­ings in dif­fer­ent regions of the state before their mea­sure may qual­i­fy for the bal­lot. Maine, mean­while, pro­hibits non­res­i­dents from cir­cu­lat­ing ini­tia­tive peti­tions, and requires that each spon­sor find at least five oth­er cospon­sors before an ini­tia­tive will be approved for circulation.

And Alaska’s Con­sti­tu­tion says that ini­tia­tives may not “ded­i­cate rev­enues, make or repeal appro­pri­a­tions, cre­ate courts, define the juris­dic­tion of courts or pre­scribe their rules, or enact local or spe­cial legislation.”

Alas­ka also requires that ini­tia­tives be “in prop­er form” before peti­tions may be print­ed. If Alaska’s Depart­ment of Law find that an ini­tia­tive is not in prop­er form (e.g. it vio­lates Alaska’s Con­sti­tu­tion), the Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor (who serves as The Last Fron­tier’s chief elec­tions offi­cial) may refuse to cer­ti­fy the initiative.

Wash­ing­ton’s ini­tia­tive process is unques­tion­ably in need of reform. It isn’t trans­par­ent or delib­er­a­tive enough. We believe the fol­low­ing three reforms would strength­en the spir­it and integri­ty of the process with­out dra­mat­i­cal­ly alter­ing it.

  • Legal review of ini­tia­tives. As men­tioned, Alas­ka requires that ini­tia­tives be “in prop­er form” before they may be approved for cir­cu­la­tion. When an ini­tia­tive is sub­mit­ted, Alas­ka elec­tions offi­cials for­ward it to the Depart­ment of Law, which ana­lyzes the mea­sure and then rec­om­mends whether it should be cer­ti­fied or reject­ed. We should do the same. We already scru­ti­nize bills through the leg­isla­tive process — we should also scru­ti­nize initiatives.
  • Cit­i­zen cospon­sors. We should require ini­tia­tives to receive a cer­tain num­ber of cospon­sors (for instance, five hun­dred) before advanc­ing to the sig­na­ture gath­er­ing stage. A cit­i­zen could still file an ini­tia­tive indi­vid­u­al­ly and get his or her idea out there, but it would not be able to pro­ceed with­out cospon­sors. This would make cor­po­rate astro­turf­ing more dif­fi­cult with­out hin­der­ing the momen­tum of efforts that are tru­ly grassroots.
  • Pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties for pub­lic input on bal­lot titles. An ini­tia­tive’s bal­lot title is the text that appears along with the ini­tia­tive num­ber on the actu­al bal­lot, and pre­cedes the ques­tion, “Should this mea­sure be enact­ed into law?” The Con­sti­tu­tion requires that the Attor­ney Gen­er­al’s office pre­pare bal­lot titles, but does not require that the Attor­ney Gen­er­al pro­vide the pub­lic with oppor­tu­ni­ties to par­tic­i­pate in the draft­ing of the bal­lot title lan­guage. As a con­se­quence, bal­lot titles for most ini­tia­tives are writ­ten by just one or two of the state’s lawyers, with lit­tle to no feedback.

In addi­tion to these reforms, we’d like to see more over­sight of the sig­na­ture gath­er­ing indus­try. We already have laws on our books that require firms to pro­tect their work­ers, but it’s not clear that the sig­na­ture gath­er­ing firms in this state are com­ply­ing with those laws. We need to make sure that indi­vid­u­als who are being paid to cir­cu­late peti­tions are being treat­ed fair­ly by their employ­ers. Cor­ner-cut­ting and fla­grant vio­la­tions of work­er pro­tec­tion laws should not be tolerated.

While requir­ing ini­tia­tives to be bud­get neu­tral is an idea wor­thy of con­sid­er­a­tion, there are poten­tial pit­falls — as exem­pli­fied by the cur­rent draft of SJR 8218.

First, 8218 makes the sec­re­tary of state respon­si­ble for decid­ing whether an ini­tia­tive is an unfund­ed man­date. We don’t think that’s appro­pri­ate. Any legal review of an ini­tia­tive should be car­ried out by the attor­ney gen­er­al’s office.

Sec­ond, it fails to spec­i­fy when this deter­mi­na­tion should be made. At the time the ini­tia­tive is filed? At the time that ini­tia­tive peti­tions are sub­mit­ted for ver­i­fi­ca­tion? The pro­posed amend­ment does­n’t say. Any legal review ought to be com­plet­ed before an ini­tia­tive moves to the sig­na­ture gath­er­ing stage.

Third, it lacks an appeals process for chal­leng­ing a deter­mi­na­tion. There needs to be one. That way, the exec­u­tive branch is not the final arbiter of an ini­tia­tive’s fate.

Thank­ful­ly, SJR 8218 is itself a res­o­lu­tion, not an ini­tia­tive. Like oth­er bills and res­o­lu­tions, that means it has to go through the leg­isla­tive process, where it will be ana­lyzed, scru­ti­nized, and cri­tiqued. There will be oppor­tu­ni­ties for imper­fec­tions to be addressed if and when it moves for­ward. We need to cre­ate sim­i­lar oppor­tu­ni­ties in our ini­tia­tive process by mak­ing it more delib­er­a­tive and transparent.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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