The fiscal impact of some state ballot measures has led lawmakers to introduce several bills this legislative session addressing the initiative process and its potential costs.
OLYMPIA — Rare is the year in Washington state when voters don’t weigh in on a ballot measure. Same-sex marriage, the legalization of first medical, then recreational, marijuana and statewide minimum-wage increases were all decided by a vote of the people.
Of the more than 260 initiatives or referendums that have appeared on the ballot since 1913, about half have passed. Those include measures that have sought to limit the Legislature’s ability to raise taxes, while others, like a recent one to reduce class sizes, came with a multibillion-dollar price tag but no funding source.
The fiscal impact of some of these measures has led lawmakers to introduce a handful of bills this legislative session addressing the initiative process and its potential costs.
One — a proposed constitutional amendment to require initiatives to have a way to pay for the costly ones and name the program cuts for those that repeal taxes — has already been abandoned. An alternative option that had a public hearing earlier this week would include the fiscal impact of the measure on the ballot if it increases costs — or reduces spending — by more than $25 million over two years.
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Another measure creates a pilot program to establish a review system for citizens initiatives to offer independent review of both sides, including findings about the measure, including costs.
“In a lot of ways, the initiative process makes citizens legislators,” said Sen. Andy Hill, a Republican from Redmond who is chairman of the Senate Ways & Means Committee, which heard the ballot-information bill. “It’s important for them to have the same kind of information I have when writing a budget.”
However, opponents of any changes to the initiative process — key among them prolific initiative promoter Tim Eyman, are pushing back.
During a public hearing on one of the bills, Eyman said that lawmakers have “developed a bizarre obsession with throwing monkey wrenches into the citizens- initiative process.”
“I guess I just always get so uncomfortable that just because an initiative you didn’t like passes, somehow the entire system is broken,” he told lawmakers.
Sen. Joe Fain, a Republican from Auburn who sponsored the three bills in the Senate, said that he is a strong supporter of the imitative process. Fain notes that he headed up a successful initiative effort in 2008 that made the offices of the King County executive and all the county council members nonpartisan.
“A reform like this is integral to strengthening the initiative process,” he said, noting that expensive initiatives will likely still pass, but will be done so with the financial considerations “front and center.”
While all states allow lawmakers to refer issues to the ballot, in 24 states, voters can place a measure on the ballot, either through the referendum or initiative process, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. According to the conference, if a ballot measure will have a monetary effect on the state’s budget, 13 states require a fiscal-impact statement to be drafted and placed on the petition or in the voter pamphlet. Several of those states also include that same information directly on the ballot: California, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming.
In addition to writing a two-year state budget, lawmakers this session are tasked with addressing education funding in the state after the state Supreme Court found the state in contempt last September for lawmakers’ lack of progress on that issue.
Under Washington law, voter-approved initiatives cannot be changed or suspended within two years of passage unless lawmakers approve by a two-thirds vote in both chambers. After two years, they need just a simple majority vote for such changes.
Lawmakers have not hesitated to take such action on initiatives — including measures on teacher raises and class sizes — during tough budget years.
The hefty price tag for Initiative 1351, to reduce class sizes, creates a projected shortfall for lawmakers of about $2 billion for the next two-year budget ending in mid-2017. Its cost increases an additional $2.7 billion through the middle of 2019.
“Initiatives obviously have an impact on how we’re able to get our budgets done,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. “Voters having more information is always a good thing.”