A pro-initiative watchdog group has set up camp in Washington state, hoping to protect the time-honored but oft-criticized tradition of...

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OLYMPIA — A pro-initiative watchdog group has set up camp in Washington state, hoping to protect the time-honored but oft-criticized tradition of “direct democracy.”

The group’s director, Shawn Newman, a populist Olympia lawyer who once ran for state office on Ross Perot’s Reform Party ticket, is state director for the Initiative and Referendum Institute.

He believes lawmakers here have effectively killed the right to referendum by shielding their touchiest measures with “emergency clauses.”

The referendum, which allows the public or the Legislature to call a public vote on a bill that passes Olympia, was added to the state constitution with a 1914 amendment born largely of voter distrust of special interests. A way around it is the emergency clause, a practice upheld Thursday by the state Supreme Court.

“The people’s referendum is DOA,” Newman says.

He says the power brokers of Olympia would probably like to abolish the entire initiative process, which he acknowledges can be a pain in the neck, but that voters aren’t about to let that happen.

It’s true that lawmakers chafe at the cumulative impact of initiatives and referendums, saying they get stuck having to balance the budget after voters have mandated big new spending programs while capping — or even cutting — taxes.

One example: Voters regularly tell pollsters they want the transportation mess fixed — but will vote in November whether to peel back the gasoline-tax increase that lawmakers recently adopted.

Process out of hand?

Most lawmakers grudgingly concede that the initiative process is here to stay and, on balance, is a good outlet that liberals and conservatives alike use.

Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, is the most-outspoken critic, saying we’d all be better off relying on old-fashioned representative democracy.

He says the state plays Russian roulette every time the masses take an up-or-down vote on complicated issues, approve contradictory messages — like spend more, tax less — or dismantle core services.

Others agree, saying the process is out of hand.

“We don’t need a mindless cheerleader for this process,” says David Goldstein, a Seattle Web-log operator who watches initiatives closely. “It is a complete end run around representative government.”

A mix of measures

Founded in Washington, D.C., before moving its base to the University of Southern California, the nonprofit, nonpartisan institute attempts to protect the initiative process while educating voters about it.

Newman spoke admiringly of the diverse mix of issues apparently headed for the ballot here: rollback of the $5.5 billion gas-tax increase, dueling initiatives dealing with medical-malpractice cases, a broader ban on smoking in public places, and authority for the state auditor to review the performance of state and local agencies and programs.

Without taking a position on any, he said all are worthy of public discussion and some reflect Olympia’s inability to deal with tough issues with powerful interests on both sides.

Although he acknowledged that some initiatives can be flaky, Newman said that’s also true of bills in the Legislature. The process is far from overused, he said: five measures this year, compared with 500-some bills that cleared the Legislature.

The bar for getting an initiative on the ballot is high — now about 275,000 signatures — a requirement that has led to a cottage industry of professionals like Tim Eyman and to signature-gathering companies that charge per name.

The high bar means an initiative sponsor needs more than the $5 filing fee and a good idea — “you need a lot of money up front to even get started,” Newman said, a thought that pains him.

If lawmakers want a cheaper initiative, they could make it easier on mom-and-pop sponsors by allowing Internet gathering of signatures, instead of hand-gathered signatures, he said.

Eyman and other users and backers of the system say they’re glad the national group is paying attention to Washington.

“Legislators are always going to be looking for an opportunity to undermine the initiative process, so you have to be ever-vigilant,” Eyman says.

Emergency clauses

In recent years, initiative advocates have been steamed by the Legislature’s liberal use of emergency clauses on bills — 98 this past session, or on about 20 percent of the measures. The clauses are boilerplate language deeming a bill necessary for public safety, to take effect immediately upon signing by the governor.

Ordinarily, bills take effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns, giving voters a window for gathering signatures — currently about 112,000 for a referendum — to force a statewide vote on the measure. Repealing a measure with an emergency clause requires an initiative, which takes twice as many signatures.

On Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court upheld the Legislature’s use of an emergency clause on a bill to rewrite voter-approved tax-and-spending limits of Initiative 601 to allow simple-majority approval of tax increases.

Within hours of Gov. Christine Gregoire signing the bill, a tax package began moving through the Legislature.

When critics tried to file a referendum to put the issue — and effectively the tax increases — on the November ballot, Secretary of State Sam Reed said he had no authority to accept the filing because of the emergency clause.