Initiatives may jam fall ballot - Signature hunt is on around
the state for dozens of proposed laws
Nearly 50 initiatives were filed with the Secretary of State's Office this year to seek a place on the Nov. 2 ballot. About a dozen are inactive, four have been withdrawn and 32 remain in the works. All face a July 2 deadline for filing of 197,734 valid signatures from registered voters to qualify for the ballot.
Voters could have choices this fall that include banning smoking in taverns, changing the state's primary election system to a "Top Two" system and allowing the use of electronic slot machines off reservations.
They also could vote to cut property taxes, while also voting to raise the state sales tax for education programs.
Some ideas are a bit offbeat or simply less likely to survive. Among them are initiatives proposing to adopt an income tax, shield cat food from the sales tax, abolish the Department of Ecology and reduce pay of elected officials to that of the average Washington wage earner.
Of the nearly 50 initiatives filed in 2004, sponsors withdrew or abandoned one-third of them. But the rest are in the works with as many as six to eight of them -- including a teacher-backed referendum to repeal the state's new charter-schools law -- thought to have a good chance of getting on the ballot, depending on the success of signature-gatherers.
"There's definitely a good hunk that look like they might make the ballot," said Western Washington University professor Todd Donovan, who has written books on the initiative process.
In 2003, only one citizen-backed measure out of a record 60 filed made it to voters. But this year is different, and Donovan predicts a half dozen could receive enough petition signatures to qualify for the Nov. 2 ballot.
One factor in favor of many initiatives is that they deal with issues that were battled over in the Legislature without clear resolution, according to Donovan. Plus, he said, "There are a number that look like they might have a lot of money behind them."
The flood of petitions already is a bit much for some voters, who have begun to run into paid signature-gatherers in public places. One boater, Jay Johnson of Port Townsend, said he has run into the petition-hawkers in just about every port of call since he and his wife began touring Puget Sound by water.
Johnson and his wife, Marcia, both declined to sign a petition last week outside the Olympia post office.
"Our feeling in general is there are too many of these proposals now. It's hard to education yourself on these when there are so many," Johnson said.
Even with buyer resistance, a few initiatives are considered viable proposals simply because they have money behind them.
For instance, the League of Education Voters raised more than $145,000 by the end of March for I-884, and the group has experience having successfully passed I-728's class-size reductions for schools in 2000.
The league now proposes to raise the sales tax by 1 percent to create a $1 billion fund for education programs from preschool to universities.
The Washington State Grange could spend $350,000 for I-872, which proposes to replace the state's Montana-style primary election system with one resembling Louisiana's "Top Two" system.
The Top Two would let voters select from all candidates in the primary but let only the two receiving the most votes in the primary to move to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.
Other measures considered having a good chance of qualifying for the ballot include two rival proposals to ban indoor smoking -- one strong measure pushed by Breathe Easy Washington, a coalition of health groups; and another gentler measure backed by card rooms and taverns that would still allow smoking in places where minors don't congregate.
Tax rebel Tim Eyman, who is the state's most successful initiative sponsor, also could qualify as many as two measures. Eyman's Initiative 892 would let nontribal venues add electronic slot machines, then use the revenue to replace part of the state's property tax and pay for problem gambling programs.
By contrast, Eyman's I-864 proposal would lop local property taxes by 25 percent without a replacement source of money for fire districts, cities or counties.
Eyman is using a mixture of paid and volunteer signature-gatherers for both proposals.
The Washington Education Association also is backing a measure, Referendum 55, to repeal the Legislature's recent law authorizing charter schools.
A few other measures also could see significant support, including the National Federation of Independent Business's I-895, which proposes to let small businesses purchase bare-bones health insurance plans for employees.
"It's going to be a crowded ballot," predicted David Burr of the State Grange, which already spent some of its estimated $350,000 budget to hire professional signature-gatherers and for radio ads that tout I-872.
The Grange is pushing for a new election system to replace the one the Legislature instituted after the state's original blanket primary, which the grange sponsored in 1935, was judged unconstitutional last year.
The Grange had favored -- and now is pushing with I-872 -- a Top Two primary, letting voters choose from all candidates in the primary. Critics complain that the Top Two, similar to Louisiana's system, only lets the names of the two candidates with the most votes to appear on the general-election ballot when most people vote.
"Whatever it takes, we will get on the ballot," Burr said.
Some initiative sponsors take a low-key approach, like citizen- activist Patrick Crawford of Littlerock, who is sponsoring I-862 to limit the salaries of public officials to whatever is the average annual pay of Washington residents.
"I've had people get mad at me for not collecting money. I've been trying to set it up like a chain letter," Crawford said. "I give somebody an initiative, I say, 'Make a few copies before collecting signatures and pass them on.' ... That way no one gets stuck paying a lot."
But the 15,000-member National Federation of Independent Business state director, Carolyn Logue, said her group is hampered by a lack of money.
"We're doing our best, but it's all volunteers and no money. You have to have $400,000 to pay signature-gatherers. There's just no way," Logue said. "We're dealing with small businesses. ... We haven't found any sugar daddy."
Instead, the group is inserting copies of its petitions in business newspapers distributed around the state and giving copies to members and to business groups like chambers of commerce, Logue said.
Some long shots
Crawford, who lost his job at the Department of Ecology nearly 15 years ago, also is backing I-863 to abolish the agency.
"If I don't get it on" the ballot, "I'll be back," Crawford promised. "I'm keeping the names of the people who've taken them. I'm getting more organized."
Eyman is among those who agree that the role of money in getting a measure passed can be overrated.
"Money doesn't get you all the way. You've got to have a good idea," he said. "That's what it always boils down to."
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