Saturday, July 7, 2007

Citizen Initiatives: A Two-Edged Sword?

During the Progressive Era in the late 19th century, a number of interest groups developed whose purposes were to further democratize the Republic. Out of these movements we got party primary elections which removed much power from party bosses, food and drug oversight, the inklings of social welfare, national parks, women's suffrage, and the popular election of U.S. Senators. Many of our national heroes arose during this period as well: Jane Addams, Andrew Carnegie, John Dewey, W.E.B. Du Bois, Woodrow Wilson, Booker T. Washington, Upton Sinclair, Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller Jr, to name a few. The business elite, politicians at all levels, scientists, academics, and activists came together to create many of the public institutions that shape our lives to this day. One of those institutions, particularly in western states, is the citizen initiative. The idea behind these initiatives was to develop a process by which a collection of civic-minded individuals could work collectively to act as an additional branch of government to either reign in irresponsible government, or to by-pass unresponsive government in an effort to enact popular legislation. Direct democracy, as it is often described, hearkens back to images of Athenian citizens assembling in the city square to shape more directly public policy and politics, and has created a kind of democratic-republic hybrid in those states which have such programs.

However, it has also created a route by which wealthy and powerful interest groups can employ the tools of populism and demagoguery to push policies which seem nice, but are not filtered through the measured, checked, and balanced legislative process.

In Washington State, there exists a man by the name of Tim Eyman who has made a fortune taking money from interest groups and corporations to promote and organize initiatives which tend to be very popular, but have in many ways crippled the state and country governments, and has made it much more difficult to actually govern.

In 1998, with the help to local radio personality and failed Gubernatorial candidate John Carlson, Eyman was able to get passed Initiative 200 which prohibited affirmative action in Washington State, and put our public agencies' hiring standards at odds with federal guidelines (in fact, many state agencies have had to come up with intricate hiring practices to satisfy these contradictory state and federal laws). In 1999, his Initiative 965 revamped the state vehicle registration fees, limiting them to $30.00 a year; not a problem for more populated counties which could supplement revenue from other sources, but which crippled the rural counties who relied on that extra income to subsidize social programs and farm support. This initiative was ultimately overturned by the Washington Supreme Court, but its popularity was strong enough to pressure then Governor Gary Locke to officially codify the $30.00 tabs.

In 2002, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that Eyman had been paying himself over $150,000 for the months he had been working on those initiative efforts - payments which were at odds with his claim that he had been working for free on these projects.

In 2006, Eyman worked - and failed - to get Referendum 65 on the ballot which would have repealed ESHB 2661 which protects homosexuals in our state from being discriminated against (when he delivered the boxes of signatures to the Secretary of State's office, he dressed up as Darth Vader to show people that he doesn't mind being the bad guy - at least he knows on which side of that dichotomy he sits...).

Basically, Tim Eyman is a giant douche, and I'm tired of the crap that he peddles.

Luckily, the voters in Washington State have largely rejected his ill-meaning initiatives. From 1998 to 2006, Eyman has sponsored 13 initiatives or referenda, and has only successfully gotten three passed: I-200 (banning affirmative action), I-776 (cut motor vehicle excise taxes - again), and I-900 (increased state auditor's office ability to conduct performance audits).

This time around, Eyman is pushing Initiative 960, which would

... make sure all statewide tax increases are passed by a minimum
two-thirds vote in both chambers of the state Legislature or placed on a ballot
for voters to approve.

That's already a requirement of state law under I-601, enacted in

Eyman said legislators keep finding ways to get around the super majority rule
and his measure "closes those loopholes."

It also goes beyond I-601 in a couple ways. For one, even if legislators pass a tax hike on a two-thirds vote, they would still need to hold an advisory
vote on their action.

And the Eyman initiative would cover gas-tax increases, which can now be raised with a simple majority vote of lawmakers.


The proposed initiative also requires lawmakers to vote to create or raise
fees, a power now left in the hands of officials in state agencies.

Now, I realize that this looks like I am just bitching about policies that I don't like, and since I am more or less a Democrat, and seeing as how the Democrats hold a super-majority in the House and Senate, and control the Governor's Mansion, I can see why someone might think that. And also, since my "side" has largely unfettered control over the State level political apparatus', it probably isn't so bad that the Dems should be checked by the popular political will. I understand all that, but this particular initiative is troublesome.

We elect politicians to govern, and to govern wisely. These initiatives ham-string our elected officials to such an extent that it makes it much more difficult for them to make hard fiscal decisions. The anti-tax groups in the state, of which there are many, rail day in and out about how irresponsible the Democrats have been regarding spending and social services. Yet, Washington State voters continue to send Democrats back to office. These initiatives appeal to the baser instincts in voters, and prevent the government from investing in transportation infrastructure that is, quite frankly, 30 years behind. The Seattle Metro area still does not have a comprehensive mass-transit system that effectively links the greater Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan region. There is very limited light-rail service which does not even connect to the airport, or major centers of interest, and the bus system is disjointed. I would go so far as to say that the primary purpose of state governments is to collect taxes and to invest in improvements of the quality of life of its residents. When the initiative process prevents our legislators from doing this, it prevents them from successfully fulfilling their duty. Furthermore, the limitations that this particular initiative puts on the state bureaucracy is horrendous. While it's important that the citizen's representatives conduct oversight, and approve the use of tax dollars, the bureaucracy has an important role to play as technical experts, and their budgets are contingent, in many ways, on having effective control over fees and fines within their respective agencies, in conjunction with the norms and standards adopted by their oversight committees in the House and the Senate. This initiative effectively strips the bureaucracy of their discretion, and if anything only increases the perceived inefficiencies of the public sector. It's not as though the Washington State bureaucracy has run amok; when the evening news points toward problems with the Dept. of Corrections, or the Dept. of Social and Health Services, it is largely a result of being understaffed, underfunded, and overburdened. If Tim Eyman is really all that concerned with oversight and public sector efficiency, perhaps he should take a long, hard look at his conservative colleagues at the national level.

Am I being completely out of line here? Or does anyone else have the same misgivings about the masses micromanaging public revenues? I know it seems anti-democratic of me, but I think that there is a lot to be said for stability and sound fiscal management - something that direct democracy does not necessarily facilitate.