Many of us already are casting mail ballots in advance of the Nov. 4 election. Here is how I cast my votes on several ballot measures. Later this week I will share my votes on various candidacies.
Ballot measures can subvert good government
These direct-democracy measures have a long tradition in Washington and other western states but are uncommon elsewhere. The reason: Most constituencies believe, and I agree, that they encourage elected officials to shun their responsibilities and buck difficult political issues to the ballot.
This certainly was the case with the 2007 advisory ballot on replacement options for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which remains a safety hazard many years after the Nisqually quake which weakened it. The viaduct on Seattle's waterfront and the 520 floating bridge across lake Washington, also weakened by the quake, are state highways. The governor and Legislature have authority to choose replacement/repair options and proceed but have not done so. Gov. Chris Gregoire has spent some $1 billion on viaduct preparatory work, but no fix has been chosen or authoritative cost estimates developed. During this same period a highway bridge in Minneapolis famously collapsed, was replaced, and is fully functioning again. We are many years and billions of dollars distant from viaduct and 520-bridge solutions — mainly because our elected officials have lacked the guts to propose and execute solutions.
Ballot measures, considered populist counterweights to special-interest influence, often have the opposite effect. A willful, well financed single-issue or single-interest sponsor can frame and campaign for a measure which serves its interest but not necessarily the general interest. Good examples: last year's and this year's Propositions 1, which would authorize billions and open-ended taxing authority to construct a three-county Sound Transit light rail system which would carry fewer passengers, take longer to construct, and cost far more than alternative bus rapid transit and ordinary bus systems.
Sound Transit, light rail's prime- and sub-contractors, and the network of law firms, P.R. firms, consultants, and others profiting from light rail have mounted intense 2007 and 2008 campaigns for Prop. 1's passage. The light rail network has channeled campaign contributions to public officials and has subsidized supposedly independent groups supporting light rail. State Auditor Brian Sonntag says he will investigate payments of taxpayer funds by the City of Seattle (authorized by Mayor and Sound Transit Board Chair Greg Nickels) to the Sound Transit-supporting Transportation Choices Coalition, which is campaigning for the light rail proposal. Sound Transit itself was created by a ballot measure which grossly misrepresented the costs, time of construction, and benefits to be derived from a light rail system.
Ballot measures also are habitually used to generate monies which should be found in normal state and city budgets. Nickels deferred regular Seattle street and bridge maintenance for several years, spending city money elsewhere, and then went to voters for extra money to pay for it — and got away with it.
Critics of ballot-king Tim Eyman can give many reasons why his efforts have hamstrung public policymaking. Usually they are right — although his proposal to institute state performance audits of public and quasi-public agencies has had a completely positive effect.
In short, ballot measures provide an excuse for those we elect to not do their jobs. They also facilitate passage of proposals which might not make it through a deliberative legislative process. In a traditional process, hearings would be held, facts developed, a proposal's benefit measured against other priorities, and an outcome reached. A ballot measure asks us to vote yes or no, right now, on someone's good or bad short-term proposal.
Spending proposals inappropriate in a belt-tightening environment
This year's ballot measures are being considered at a time of financial turmoil, looming recession, and reduction of available public tax revenue. Anything getting a "yes" vote should be of incontestable merit and/or not require expenditure of public funds.
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