Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, has gathered strong bipartisan support for a constitutional amendment that would require proponents of citizen initiatives to provide voters with more specific information. Initiatives are always a voter-beware proposition, and Fain calls his proposal the Truth in Initiatives Amendment.
We think Senate Joint Resolution 8201 needs more work.
Fain and a long list of co-sponsors, including 20 of 23 Senate Democrats (including Thurston County Sen. Karen Fraser), are concerned that initiatives often create unmanageable budget choices for the state Legislature and/or local governments. They want future initiatives to clearly state how the mandate would be funded, or – although this is less clear – which state programs should be cut if the initiative eliminates or limits specific taxes.
The Legislature’s frustration is understandable. Fain’s idea clearly gained momentum after voters approved Initiative 1351 last fall, which imposes strict limits on class sizes from kindergarten through high school.
The cost of hiring more teachers and building more classrooms to comply with the initiative through 2019 has been estimated to be about $4 billion. The initiative provided no funding source for lawmakers, who already are struggling to find an “extra” billions through 2019 to meet the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision to fully fund K-12 education.
Legislators are now likely to suspend I-1351, which is the approach they’ve taken with past unfunded initiatives, including two on education. But when they do, voters can become disillusioned with the political process.
Then there is the other side of the budget ledger. Just as damaging to state and local budgeting processes are initiatives that take away or limit the ability of government to raise revenue. Those initiatives never clearly state what programs or services state and local government should cut in order to comply.
When Initiative 747 passed, for example, limiting property tax increases to 1 percent, its promoters did not identify what services local governments should stop providing. When voters passed Initiative 695, eliminating the motor vehicle excise tax, they were not told by sponsors what specific government service should be slashed.
If it moves forward, Fain’s proposal should apply equally to both sides of the budget equation. Just as an initiative mandating new spending might have to include sources of money, an initiative taking away potential revenue from local or state governments – or impeding their ability to provide existing services by reducing available funding – should say where cuts ought to be made.
Clearly, lawmakers face a tough challenge to write language for a constitutional amendment that ensures voters get accurate and complete information about how initiatives affect both taxes and government services.
Drawing the line on which initiatives are large enough to require a fund source – or that must identify a target for cuts – won’t be easy either.
But without clarity, or perhaps a new approach, lawmakers are begging for more time before the Supreme Court.