Legislators see flaws in budget

Politicians from both sides of the legislative aisle shared their views on initiatives and referendums Saturday at the Whidbey Island League of Women Voters annual legislative brunch. None of them were wearing rose-colored glasses.

“It’s hard to say anything positive about initiatives and referendums right now,” Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D) said.

Haugen said what began as a populist “power to the people” process has been abused. It gives citizens the ability to pass laws without having to go through a rigorous debate in the Legislature, which can result in flawed laws. She said another weakness of the initiative process is that it is one-sided, without enough public debate.

A misconception that people have about initiatives is that they believe they are “written in stone,” Haugen said. In reality, they are like any other law, and are subject to review and repeal after two years.

Newly-elected Republican Representative Barbara Bailey, an Oak Harbor resident, said she is still very much in the “freshman” phase of her political career in Olympia, and didn’t think it was appropriate to offer her opinion on the initiative process at this time.

“I’m finding out how much I don’t know,” she said.

Bailey did say she had voted for I-695, the Tim Eyman-sponsored $35 license tab fee initiative, which has cost the state millions in lost revenue, but she now regrets that decision.

“Had I known then what that initiative would do, I would have never voted for it,” she said.

She also said “reverse language” used in referendums and initiatives can be hard to understand.

She said the increasing popularity of initiatives is the result of people not trusting government. She speculated that if politicians could work to regain the peoples’ trust, there would be less need for voter-sponsored initiatives.

Rep. Barry Sehlin (R-Oak Harbor) had one word for people who say they didn’t know what they were voting for: “Baloney.”

Sehlin said the media covers initiatives and referendums well, and there is plenty of opportunity for the voter to be informed.

“The information is out there,” he said, adding that people need to accept the responsibility to learn about proposed initiatives and referendums before they vote.

Sehlin said he knows of no one who would disagree with the value of the initiative process, but that the process has taken some undesirable turns in the last few years. Most concerning is the growing use of paid signature gatherers, which is developing into an industry in itself. He said some signature-gathering companies are now starting to write the language of the initiative, becoming an active, and perhaps biased, partner in the process.

Although it has not happened yet, Sehlin fears the next step will be “initiatives as business,” in which new initiatives are proposed simply to support a business venture, sort of an Initiatives-R-Us approach to government.

“That to me (would be) a very negative development, undermining the whole political process,” he said.

Sehlin urged groups such as the gathered League of Women Voters to study the initiatives, and identify the “real” ones.

The legislators also discussed the pros and cons of instituting a state income tax in an effort to plug the deep hole in the state budget.

Haugen, a 20-year political veteran, said this legislative session is facing the greatest budget deficit since 1980.

“This will be one of the most challenging sessions many of us have faced,” she said.

Haugen felt while an income tax is not a magic bullet, it is the right thing to do.

It would not be an overnight decision, as it would require a constitutional amendment, two-thirds approval in the Legislature and the approval of voters.

“I hope I see it in my lifetime,” Haugen said.

She called the current state tax structure regressive, and hard on low-income people and small businesses. She compared the state’s reliance on sales tax revenue to a construction worker’s fluctuating income, saying, “It’s feast or famine.”

Sehlin said while “sin taxes” are regressive in that they target low income residents, in general Washington’s tax structure is one of the stablest in the country. Sehlin cited states in worse financial situations than Washington, particularly those with state income taxes.

“You think we’ve got problems?,” Sehlin said, citing Arizona’s proposal to eliminate all college funding, and Idaho’s proposed plan to close all state parks.

Bailey said legislators need to look at the broader picture in solving the budget crisis.

“I firmly believe we have a spending problem, not a taxing problem,” she said. “We simply can’t do everything we have been doing.”

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