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Initiative process needs reform

"Last year, the voters used their initiative and referendum power to reform the state’s complicated transportation spending system, committing us to spend billions of dollars in Motor Vehicle Excise Tax money on transportation projects.This year, if early polling holds true, those same voters will virtually reform the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax out of existence with Initiative 695. While they’re at it, they’ll hamstring all levels of government with a ban on tax and fee increases, without voter approval.Contradictory?You bet.Did most voters understand that complexity when they went to the polls?Some did. Most didn’t.Did they nevertheless vote to create havoc in their own government — a factor that many will now blame on their elected politicians?You bet.Those contradictions, and more, are ample arguments for reforming the state’s overreaching power of initiative and referendum.The act of governing, when it is done well, is a complicated business. Washington state manages billions of dollars in revenue and spending every year. It employs tens of thousands of people and runs programs that cover the gamut from child care to police services to college education.Unlike the federal government, the state also must spend within its means. If it comes up short, it can’t print more money — it must cut spending, or raise taxes, to make the books balance by the end of the year. Consequently, serious tinkering on any single part of the system requires major to minor adjustments in many others — sometimes intended, sometimes otherwise.Because of that complexity, the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution created a representative system. Our elected representatives are supposed to take the time to immerse themselves in the complexities of the legislation they face, and to manage our affairs from some sort of an educated basis, with the sole requirement that they stand for re-election every few years.So we send them to Olympia for months on end, where they form themselves into committees to conduct hours of hearings, and hire staffs to produce reams of studies and paperwork. We send many of them back for multiple terms.Even so, our representatives — most of them — say they can’t vote intelligently on every bill that comes across the floor. There are too many of them.Most of us at home are doubly handicapped. We have real lives and real jobs that require most of our attention. Few of us could vote intelligently on any of the bills that are on the floor of the state House on any given day, or even know what they are, much less amass an understanding of the complex effects that they might have on our lives.So how is it that we feel perfectly comfortable with going to the polls once every year to vote on sweeping, often badly written, pieces of legislation that can wreak untold amounts of havoc on the business of our state?It is possible for the voters to be given too much power; just as it is possible for our representatives to retain too much.The initiative system was created as a means of giving the citizenry a voice in government, and well they should. The problem is, it is too direct.Why not create a system in which the voters, through binding ballot-box resolutions, rather than initiatives, require the Legislature to accomplish broad actions — like reform the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax — within a certain amount of time, or face penalties — such as the loss of the tax altogether, or the loss of their salaries. That would leave power in the hands of the voters to require general change, but leave the details in the hands of representatives.That, combined with the Legislature’s power to refer referendums to the people for direct votes, might retain some of the benefits of our initiative power, while stripping us of some of our power to hurt ourselves before we know how we’ve done it."

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