Voters limiting Legislature’s say: Major state decisions being made by initiatives

After Tuesday’s election some lawmakers were heard to grumble about mixed messages from voters who approved initiatives that limited property-tax increases, raised tobacco taxes and increased the bureaucracy to regulate home health care.

But the results were part of a clear and consistent message from voters: "We’ll make the state’s major fiscal decisions ourselves."

After Tuesday’s election some lawmakers were heard to grumble about mixed messages from voters who approved initiatives that limited property-tax increases, raised tobacco taxes and increased the bureaucracy to regulate home health care.

But the results were part of a clear and consistent message from voters: "We’ll make the state’s major fiscal decisions ourselves."

As they have for most of the past decade, voters, not lawmakers, were setting the agenda for Olympia. Since 1993, voters have created a strict spending limit, given themselves tax breaks when the Legislature was busy cutting business taxes, boosted teacher pay, increased education funding and raised tobacco taxes.

If lawmakers are frustrated by that — and a recently published survey shows they are — they share the blame. In recent years the Legislature has marginalized itself as it failed to respond to voter discontent and then, out of fear voters would rebel, showed a growing skittishness about taking its own bold action.

Even when lawmakers think an initiative is flawed or unconstitutional they are loath to propose changes, imbuing the initiative with even more power.

And despite repeated warnings that initiatives would create fiscal havoc, the Legislature has consistently bailed out local governments and programs that would have been hurt. That tended to inoculate subsequent initiative campaigns from the same dire warnings.

"I think the voters have to understand that when you cut taxes, there will be fewer services. We’ve got to get out of this make-believe land," said House Appropriations Committee Co-Chairwoman Helen Sommers, D-Seattle.

The situation has been made worse by a three-year tie that has bollixed up the House while the Senate Democrats struggled last year with a one-vote majority. That has left a Legislature that spends much of its time on small things — so much so that it frustrates even Gov. Gary Locke, himself once a master of minutia — while voters draw the big strokes.

"The legislative body was constituted for incremental change," Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, said. "The initiative process is for big, clear, winner-loser stuff. The Legislature is for compromise."

Democrats won two important special elections last week that tip control of the House their way.

But with the Democrats holding only a tiny majority in each chamber, it’s what voters did themselves on the ballot that will have a bigger impact on broad state policy.

"The Legislature is going to get down the road in a couple of years and they’ll have nothing left to spend," said former Secretary of State Ralph Munro. "They’re not going to have any prerogatives at all and that’s not healthy. That’s not good at all."

Birth of a movement

When the 2002 Legislature convenes in January, lawmakers will face the most serious budget shortfall since 1993.

That year, lawmakers fixed the problem with budget cuts and heavy tax increases.

In many ways that set off the current trend in citizen initiatives.

The voters’ immediate reaction was to pass in the fall of 1993 Initiative 601, which created the state spending limit.

With a cap on spending and the economy humming, large budget reserves built up, which lawmakers used to give tax breaks to businesses, while individual taxpayers got little relief.

Republican lawmakers put a small property-tax cut on the ballot because Locke had said he would veto it if it went to his desk for a signature. The GOP also put a small cut in the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax on the ballot.

But with still hefty budget reserves and business getting a lopsided share of tax cuts, Mukilteo businessman Tim Eyman created Initiative 695 in 1999 to eliminate the car tax and replace it with a flat $30 fee.

It passed overwhelmingly as Eyman told voters hundreds of millions of dollars in reserves would pay for any services left wanting after the tax was eliminated.

While the budget reserves were building up, lawmakers were telling people and groups pushing for more state services that they would have to do with less, that I-601 wouldn’t allow for the raises, social services and number of schoolteachers they wanted.

So those groups went to the ballot, too. And they won, raising teachers’ salaries, dedicating money for hiring more teachers and, last week, raising tobacco taxes to pay for low-income health-care programs.

That’s what lawmakers see as a mixed message: simultaneous calls from voters for less taxes but more spending.

Really, though, voters are making the same sort of decisions and trade-offs the Legislature does each year. "They’re telling us what their priorities are," Locke said last week.

Frustration grows

But legislators are "hugely frustrated," said Todd Donovan, a Western Washington University political-science professor who studies initiatives. "I’ve never met one who thinks the public is equally skilled at making major policy decisions," he said.

That was evident in a survey recently published by Donovan that compared answers from legislators and candidates in Washington, Oregon and California — all big initiative states — to answers from Washington voters.

The survey found that only 36 percent of Washington residents thought there were too many initiatives, compared with 71 percent of the politicians. And 79 percent of candidates and lawmakers said the Legislature should handle issues, while only 24 percent of the public thought that.

That is not to say that the public is blind to problems with initiatives. The survey found agreement among most politicians and most of the public that initiative campaigns were misleading, and a majority of each group said that initiatives made bad laws.

"The vast majority of the people were pretty sympathetic to the job the Legislature is doing," Donovan said. "It’s not that they think the legislators are idiots, it’s that they think they are just as smart."

At the same time, legislators say that they, and not the public, are best-suited for deciding issues. But Donovan says they don’t always do it when they can or should.

When a King County Superior Court judge ruled Initiative 695 unconstitutional, lawmakers and the governor rushed to put the $30 car-tab fees into law, even though they had said it was a Draconian move sure to cripple essential state services.

"It still remains a big mystery to me why they didn’t even put up some alternative," Donovan said.

Lawmakers give initiatives even more power, Donovan said, "because they are not willing to amend them or challenge them or even talk about them."

Even Democrats who led the charge against I-695 voted to cut the car tax, though they didn’t think it was a good idea. The voters seemed angry, so "Why pick a fight with them?" is how Dunshee remembers the argument.

He said he and others had been working on an alternative that wouldn’t have been so dramatic, but that Democratic leaders made it clear "that would have reflected bad on the institution."

Lawmakers have often lacked candor when talking about Initiative 601. While it has been amended several times to allow for more spending and many lawmakers say it is seriously flawed, they talk as if I-601 were a sacrosanct guiding principle in Olympia.

"It is probably unconstitutional," said Senate Minority Leader James West, R-Spokane. "It was a psychological barrier. It was more mythical."

The Eyman factor

Eyman says the initiative process is unfairly labeled as a radical approach to problems, "but we’re no more wacky than some of what the Legislature does."

Small comfort, perhaps. But Eyman says lawmakers should not feel threatened by initiatives.

"Legislators think, ‘these darn citizens keep criticizing us by passing these measures,’ " Eyman said. "Now that they’ve discovered that they’re not a monopoly on public policy, they should react to the competition and say, ‘OK guys, we better come up with better ideas, better solutions, or an initiative will do it for us.’ "

Already, though, some lawmakers are guided by WWED — What Would Eyman Do?

Some were reluctant to pass an increase in the gas tax this year without putting it on the ballot; they feared that Eyman would mount a referendum campaign to undo it.

"Just the fact that we didn’t put it on the ballot would give Eyman the ability to say (to voters) ‘Ah, they don’t trust you,’ " Dunshee said.

Eyman makes much of the fact that most initiative issues had been before the Legislature earlier, and that lawmakers had had the chance to address them.

Former Rep. Brian Thomas says that’s true. But rather than a sign that the Legislature is gutless, he says, it’s a sign that the proposals were bad.

"There’s been a lot of really crummy ideas out there that the Legislature, for good reason, wouldn’t do," said Thomas, a Republican from Renton.

Thomas and Sommers, the appropriations co-chairwoman, worked together to create a new way to fund school construction.

But last year voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative 728. Known as the class-size initiative, it gave school districts wide discretion in deciding how to spend money from a new Academic Achievement Fund that used the same money Thomas and Sommers had identified solely for school construction.

"We were happy and smiled and went home and the next year the people destroyed it," Thomas said.

"The public stole it."

David Postman can be reached at 360-943-9882 or at