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The ballot measures: How one observer looks at the current crop

It's tempting to vote against them all. Here's how a veteran political observer decided on the big ones of 2012.
Washington state ballot (2010).

Washington state ballot (2010). Bob Simmons

Editor's note: Ted Van Dyk has been writing about ballot measures for a decade at Crosscut and, before that, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He and the editors encourage your comments using the form below to share your voting choices on these measures.

Ballot measures, to me, are as relevant to good government as McDonald's is to fine cooking. They were seen a century ago as populist correctives to misdeeds committed by Western-state executive and legislative leaders owned by railroad, mining, development, and financial interests. Now, though, they often have become modern-day vehicles for special- and single-interest groups with big media money to get things done that might not make it through a more deliberative policymaking process.  

Big taxing or spending proposals stand alone without context on the ballot and are not weighed against other, contending priorities. Ballot measures also offer a convenient escape route for gutless elected officials, who buck issues to the ballot rather than risk decisions they were elected to take. But Washington voters still love them and will make decisions about them, by mail and in person, over the next several days.

Rather than vote a reflexive "no" on all, I came down as follows on the principal ones:

  • Seattle Proposition No. 1 (Alaskan Way seawall repair): This would authorize the city to issue $290 million in general-obligation bonds to fix the deteriorating seawall and adjacent public facilities and infrastructure. For a long time, this was linked to the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement but the two are now de-linked, in part because the combined deep-bore tunnel and seawall-repair tabs would stagger even a Saudi prince. Those opposing the measure protest that all Seattle property owners would be paying over 30 years for improvements mainly benefiting entities along 1.32 miles of Elliott Bay. They also assert that those labeling the seawall project "a critical public-safety investment" are hugely overstating any danger and that the Washington Department of Transportation ferries division and Port of Seattle should finance necessary improvements on their own. The usual business- and labor-establishment groups have endorsed the measure. I don't want the seawall to collapse but, at the same time, am skeptical about the cost figures presented and the urgency with which a few want to be financed by everyone else. I voted neither Yes nor No on this one.
  • I-1185 (reaffirming restrictions on state tax and fee increases): Those opposing this reaffirmation of an original Tim Eyman-sponsored measure are trying to make this a yes-no referendum on Eyman. I prefer to step back and judge the proposal on its own merit. After 11 years back in my home state, I have come to understand the general public skepticism about governors' and legislators' capacity to show taxing and spending restraint and why such restrictions keep getting reaffirmed by voters. Even in the face of the recent state debt crisis, the Olympia electeds have had a difficult time disciplining spending. The first reach is always for "new revenue sources." Hence the public approvals and reapprovals in recent years of constraints requiring a 2/3rds legislative majority or voter approval to raise taxes and requiring majority legislative approval for new or increased fees. But I also regard these requirements as putting unreasonable constraints on policymaking. They also open questions about just what and is not a tax or fee increase. If we don't like the taxing and spending being undertaken by our governors and state legislators, we should change governors and legislators. But we should not place unreasonable constraints on them while they are in office. I understand voter frustration on the matter but voted No.
  • I-1240 (creating a public charter school system): Some 41 states already have such schools. They came into being a generation ago in response to complaints by minority parents, in particular, in big-city school systems that their kids were trapped in bad schools and could not escape them without enrolling in private schools beyond their means. The proposal, unsurprisngly, is opposed by teacher unions. The public charter schools would be required to meet the same academic standards as traditional public schools; their teachers would be required to meet the same requirements as teachers in other public schools. But the charter schools would be able to offer more staffing, curriculum, budget, and tailored learning flexibility than other public schools. In many other places, charter schools often are identified as taking traditional reading-writing-arithmetic approaches to learning. But some also have been experimental. There are numerous success stories about charter schools but critics counter with stories of charter-school failure.They would not even be on the public agenda if parents were satisfied with the education their kids presently are getting in traditional public schools. Charter schools are no panacea. But I've seen them elsewhere and see no reason they should not be established here. I voted Yes.
  • Referendum 74 (legalizing same-sex marriage and preserving domestic partnerships only for seniors): I can understand the religious and other sincerely motivated criticisms of this provision. But I see it as an equal-rights issue. Solid marriages should be encouraged, not matter the gender of the partners. This is an idea whose time is coming quickly in many states and which, a decade from now, will be almost universally accepted. I voted Yes.
  • I-502 (licensing and regulating marijuana production, distribution, and possession for over-21 citizens; removing state-law criminal and civil penalties for activities authorized; and taxing of marijuana sales and earmarking of marijuana-related revenues): Proponents of this measure often point to the failed experiment of alcohol prohibition. They point, in particular, to the state and local revenues which could be generated by adoption of this measure. Some opponents point to conflicts with tederal law and the fact that marijuana possession would be decriminalized, but not retail or home growing. Still other opponents make the traditional argument that marijuana use leads to other drug use and that marijuana recently has surpassed alcohol as the No. 1 reason young people enter substance-abuse treatment. Where you stand on this often depends on your generation. Kids in my Depression-born generation had heard of marijuana but few had seen or used it. We were beer drinkers. The Boomer generation, by contrast, grew up with marijuana. I recall well, as platform coordinator for Democratic presidential candidates, how boomers began lobbying actively from 1972 onward for marijuana legalization, even stressing it over war-peace and economic issues. On this one I am hopelessly old school. Marijuana dulls the brain, leads to overeating, causes inattentive behavior, and reduces sex drive. There are those who love it but I fail to see the social benefits that would derive from I-502. It no doubt would generate tax revenues but so, no doubt, would cocaine legalization. Medical marijuana use is legal here. Possession laws are not enforced unless you are carrying the product in bails. Yes, I know alcohol does more harm than marijuana. But that does not mean marijuana should be easily grown, sold, obtained, and used. Society has to set limits somewhere; I'd leave marijuana in its present in-between status. If you want it, you know you can get it. But don't promote its widened use. I voted No.
  • Engrossed Senate Joint Resolution 8221 (regarding the Legislature's proposed constitutional amendment to phase down Washington's debt limit): This mainly is opposed by groups asserting that businesses and unions benefiting from public contracts and jobs would be hurt by a three-step phasedown, beginning in 2014, of the state debt limit from 9 to 8 percent Given our state's recent financial plight, and difficulty in restraining its debt, this seems to me a no-brainer. I voted Yes.
  • Senate Joint Resolution 8223 (regarding the Legislature's proposed constutional amendments on investments by the University of Washington and Washington State University): This would allow investment by these universities in private stocks and bonds. The state constitution generally limits the investment of state funds in private stocks and bonds. But many exceptions have been made for public pension and retirement funds, workers compensation funds, and other public funds. The amendment would create a new exception. Opponents point out that the UW endowment had a half-billion dollars in stock losses in 2009. These losses, they say, could also be incurred in operating funds if the amendment goes into effect. Proponents say the schools face big funding shortfalls and should have greater flexibility to generate income. The State Invesment Board, not the universitites themselves, would invest the funds, guaranteeing independent oversight. (The Investment Board, critics respond, also lost 23 percent of its money in the recent crash). I worry about risk but do believe the schools should have greater freedom to get a better return on their (our) money. I voted Yes.

Ted Van Dyk has been involved in, and written about, national policy and politics since 1961. His memoir of public life, Heroes, Hacks and Fools, was published by University of Washington Press. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.

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Posted Tue, Oct 30, 4:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Van Dyk's analysis of I-1240 was completely without analysis.


Posted Tue, Oct 30, 7:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Humor him. He's trying to be Lou Guzzo.


Posted Tue, Oct 30, 12:26 p.m. Inappropriate

The corporate takeover of our school's via the otherwise desirable Charter philosophy is shocking, what the Gates' did to the UW makes this very clearly a criminal enterprise.

Posted Tue, Oct 30, 7:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Seattle Prop 1-- I do not live in the People's Republic of Seattle, but do consider that if we keep bailing out the pols who ignore the certain costs of replacing infrastructure until they call "the sky is falling, we must do something" just encourages more of the bad behavior. Vote no, please.

I-1185--Ted's analysis of the first call to be more revenue is spot on. Any idea that is durable enough, or problem pressing enough should have no trouble getting a 66% vote. Legislators USED to get stuff done, by compromise, now not so much, er, ah, make that not at all. Those always calling for more revenue would be embarrassed to have to justify that everything else we do with current revenue should continue, and funded at the same level.

I-1240-- Show me one time where competition has not lowered prices/increased value. There are none. (Full disclosure-I was a school board member for 13 years, and a leader in the state association). This measure increases choices, which is a good thing, and what the gub'mint should be doing, not keeping us captive to a sole provider. Let the sheeple vote with where they send their kids...remember, charter schools are public schools

Ref 74-- My nice lady couple next door deserve support and my libertarian leanings suggest this pass, however, a big however, the provision to move ALL registered partnerships to marriage is a deal-killer. My astute neighbor who is really into this tells me she guarantees me that NOT all registered partners would opt for marriage, therefore I vote against the gub'mint forcing you to become married, and invite the state intrusion into your personal choices. Sorry, ladies, I would love to support you, but that provision, which I am told has been in every ballot measure in every state for whatever reason, is a deal breaker.

I-502 Dope--I don't talk to MaryJane, but notice that the current laws are ineffective. Don't see any lack of stoners at Chez Denny at 3 ayem, furshure. I do see the cops crow with glee at their big busts, but I wish they were doing other things, and not filling the jails with folks who are not a threat to society. Legalize and tax the sheyt out of it. Remember, crooks and gang-bangers hate competition from the gub'mint.

Cutting debt limit, and letting colleges invest as they see fit--yuppers.

So sayeth the Geezer


Posted Tue, Oct 30, 7:53 a.m. Inappropriate


Crooks and gang-bangers HATE competition from the Gub'mint.



Posted Tue, Oct 30, 7:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Geezer, I'm doing my best to not be judgmental, but if you were on the school board for 13 years and a leader in the state association, I would think you are a big part of the status quo who didn't do their duty to improve our state's public schools.


Posted Wed, Oct 31, 8:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Our local district won several awards. Want to see my pic with Pres. Reagan presenting one of them to me in DC?
We can move, but not pin, the needle on a state basis.

Interesting to note that one of my co-leaders in the state association is one who co-wrote the pro position in the voters pamphlet.


Posted Mon, Nov 5, 7:29 p.m. Inappropriate

One individual can make differences; perhaps Geezer kept down the idiots in more subtle ways.

Posted Thu, Nov 1, 11:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Anyone who refers to "the gub'mint" loses credibility. Not only are you a geezer, but you're also apparently a right wing crank.


Posted Mon, Nov 5, 7:30 p.m. Inappropriate

As opposed to you -- a left wing crank.

Posted Tue, Oct 30, 7:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for being thoughtful about the seawall. There is no doubt that the work is needed, but how to best finance it is not so clear and spreading total cost over the entire city is questionable.

Some taxpayers are sure to note that the cost is near equivalent to what the politicians hope to squander on subsidizing the proposed basketball stadium.

Voting might send a message favoring both fairer funding of the seawall and more prudent spending overall.


Posted Tue, Oct 30, 9:34 a.m. Inappropriate

"Marijuana dulls the brain, leads to overeating, causes inattentive behavior, and reduces sex drive."

These are all fairly subjective experiences that differ among users. The reduced sex drive in particular is based on a 40 year old study that showed testosterone levels were reduced (and thus libido).

Several studies since have shown the opposite--increased/enhanced sexual experiences with marijuana use.

As far as overeating, I think our obesity problem goes far beyond the so-called 'munchies' stereotypical of mj use.


Posted Tue, Oct 30, 12:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Ditto on the above. Personally, the quantity consumed makes a big difference and addictive personalities will likely suffer some of the stereotypes that Mr. Van Dyk carries. Occasional, light, use, is a completely different matter.

Frankly, we should have consumption limits on alcohol too, but the details of enforcing same are a larger, and tricky, subject.

Posted Tue, Oct 30, 12:05 p.m. Inappropriate

As the self-styled "Geezer" states above, I too am concerned about I-74's power to force people out of civil unions and into same-sex marriages. Mr. Van Dyk says that I-74 is an equal-rights issue, but we achieved that equal-rights victory in 2009 with SB-5688, the "everything but marriage" law. A lot of us who supported this law went away from that congratulating ourselves that we had achieved equal rights for same-sex couples. Beyond that, it seems that we're just playing with words. And so we would be, if I-74 didn't involve coercion to force people to adopt same-sex "marriage" when they may be perfectly happy with, and might even prefer a same-sex "domestic partnership." I don't oppose this initiative, as I just don't see what the big deal is about the word, but that coercive element makes it pretty tough to endorse. In the end I probably won't vote on it at all, because if I vote "no", to protect the hard-won rights of people in domestic partnerships, I'm to be branded a homophobe and a bigot, aren't I? Quite a conundrum for someone who believes in equal rights for everyone.


Posted Thu, Nov 1, 11:56 a.m. Inappropriate

"I just don't see what the big deal is about the word..." Then you don't get it. It's clearly a big deal to lots of people.


Posted Sat, Nov 3, 8:34 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for taking the time to explain it to me.


Posted Tue, Oct 30, 12:08 p.m. Inappropriate

"Marijuana dulls the brain, leads to overeating, causes inattentive behavior, and reduces sex drive."

Actually, olde guzzler buddy, that's mostly what beer does. Other than the overeating bit, pot is a much more interesting chemical than alcohol. It tends to expand the range of available mental experiences, especially on the emotional level. Sex is definitely more fun stoned on pot. Cannabis will indeed distort the sense of time, which leads to the sense of inattention -- not especially recommended for driving -- but there is also a learning curve involved. With exposure one adjusts one's reactions to the perceptual timing changes.

Back in the day, I used to work for Indian tribes, where I was privileged to observe the ravages of alcoholism in their most extreme form. Sometimes I would quietly take a boozing kid aside and advise him to try pot instead. While I never saw anyone entirely give up alcohol for pot, I did encounter instances where the introduction to dope smoking moderated the drinking to a less destructive level. We can agree that in a perfect world nobody will abuse either alcohol or weed. But the reality is that addiction to alcohol is far more debilitating than addiction to pot. There is no rational basis for glorifying the former and criminalizing the latter.


Posted Tue, Oct 30, 12:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Fact check, Crosscut has only been around since 2007, so tell me, what was the editor 'smoking' when he wrote this intro.

FWIW, on the State money issues I voted yes on retaining citizen control, including the Eyman related item - and also yes on the particular set of State funding issues presented in this go around.

Posted Tue, Oct 30, 9:30 p.m. Inappropriate

Truly lame analysis of the Charter initiative. "I've seen them elsewhere, why not in WA?" I've seen boils but that doesn't mean I want them on my ass.

As with any initiative, the question we should ask is: "Who's behind this piece of crap?" The answer here is Big Bizness, with everyone from Jeff Bezos to Gates to the Walton clan lining up to line their pockets with a piece of the action. This is a business venture to them, paid for with public dollars, plain and simple. By flipping existing schools into Charters, they get a free facility to start their pet project. "Wal-High" or whatever. We get zero oversight, as Charters don't answer to elected school boards.


Posted Wed, Oct 31, 6:11 a.m. Inappropriate

Got to disagree with you on this one, JRick22. I should have said, more accurately, that I've seen charter schools elsewhere which have been quite successful. Disagree with you on the motives of the local sponsors. I think they genuinely want to improve the quality of local public education.

Posted Wed, Oct 31, 11:15 a.m. Inappropriate

If the "local sponsors" wanted to, they could have taken the millions they are spending on this initiative and given fat donations to the struggling public schools of their choice.
Better yet, they could have actually paid the corporate taxes they owe to the state of WA instead of hiding profits offshore and thereby cheating the school system.

As for being "quite successful" elsewhere, your comments again are weak on specifics.

"... The only comprehensive study on the overall effectiveness of charter schools was done three years ago by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) of Stanford University. (You can read the study here.) CREDO found that 17 percent of charter school students performed better than their public school counterparts, 46 percent no better and 37 percent worse. A 17% success rate (and a 37% failure rate!) is hardly a result on which charter school proponents should hang their hats."



Posted Tue, Oct 30, 9:40 p.m. Inappropriate

On another topic, who's behind R-74? The homophobic opposition put this on the ballot, hoping to undo Governor Gregoire's parting gift to the LGBT community: a new law that makes the recently enacted Domestic Partnership law moot by allowing everyone to marry, and converting existing DPs to marriages. This is what the LGBT community wants. Not gay marriage, just marriage. Period. The same.

The writer's objections are absurd. (Seniors will still have access to Domestic Partnership, as many cannot remarry due to loss of medical benefits or pensions.) Everyone else can either co-habitate or marry. Whatever. The LGBT community is fully behind this measure. Even if you have minor objections, vote yes, out of solidarity for an ongoing civil rights struggle.


Posted Wed, Oct 31, 11:03 a.m. Inappropriate

If you are still undecided about the Charter School initiative, it's worth reading about how this has worked (or not worked) in other states. Milwaukee is 20 years into the Charter experiment and the results have been hard to evaluate due to a lack of transparency: "The False Promise of School Choice"


Posted Wed, Oct 31, 3:55 p.m. Inappropriate

"They came into being a generation ago in response to complaints by minority parents, in particular, in big-city school systems that their kids were trapped in bad schools and could not escape them without enrolling in private schools beyond their means."

Absolutely FALSE. Mr. Van Dyk has NOT done his research and it is a disservice to his readers. If he likes charter schools, great. But do not lead your readers astray. Charter schools were an idea started by an educator, not by parents.

"But the charter schools would be able to offer more staffing, curriculum, budget, and tailored learning flexibility than other public schools."

Again, false. There is NOTHING a charter school can do that cannot be done in Washington State schools except not hiring union teachers. And, Seattle Schools, in its new Creative Approach plan, is doing everything he just named. No charter law needed.

"They would not even be on the public agenda if parents were satisfied with the education their kids presently are getting in traditional public schools."

Nope. This was NOT brought to the ballot by parents or community. It was brought by big business and a small number of ed reformers. The PDC numbers say it all.

Again, very sad to see Crosscut allowing this level of poor research to get out there as valid reasoning.


Posted Wed, Oct 31, 4:50 p.m. Inappropriate

How selfish of those big businesses not to want employees with a mediocre education!


Posted Wed, Oct 31, 7:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Gee Breneman, you did hear that - for the 9th straight year - Washington State is tops in SAT scores? Not exactly a "backwater"state.


Posted Mon, Nov 5, 7:37 p.m. Inappropriate

I wonder ... in the 1970's, I don't recall any SAT practice sessions, coaching or the like. Yet today, that has become the norm.

Does that make the SAT results less stellar?

As they say, practice makes perfect.

Posted Wed, Oct 31, 11:26 p.m. Inappropriate

DBreneman: I think votes are intended to be private, so you could have felt free to vote for I-74 without feeling that you'd have to explain it.

As far as charter schools, since when should K-12 schools adhere to what big businesses want? But if you are a product of public schools and you believe they are mediocre, you shouldn't expect to be able to comment on matters beyond your educdation.


Posted Thu, Nov 1, 10:54 a.m. Inappropriate

The schools are certainly much better now than they were when I was a kid. I lived in a school district that prided itself on its "No Homework" policy. I had some very good teachers, but there were a lot of hangers-on, too, and my public school education was indeed mediocre. I graduated high school with straight As and barely made it through my first year of college. The joke at my high school was that all you had to do was show up for class sober three days a week and you were guaranteed a B. So I'm interested in anything that might improve the public schools. I don't want another generation of kids to suffer the way my generation did. No matter how much the schools have improved since I went, there will always be room for improvement, and I can't see what's wrong with a little creative experimentation. I suffered through pleny of trendy-theory experiments in education when I was a student.

And, westello, my wise crack was prompted by your comment that I-1240 "...was brought by big business and a small number of ed reformers." Those are people who have a strong interest in our public education system being the best it can. I hardly consider their support a condemnation.


Posted Mon, Nov 5, 7:41 p.m. Inappropriate

"If you are a product of public schools and you believe they are mediocre, you shouldn't expect to be able to comment on matters beyond your education."

sarah90, you're suggesting that once out of public schools all learning stops?


Posted Fri, Nov 2, 10:52 a.m. Inappropriate

I wish Crosscut would do some reporting about the two "advisory votes." I found it highly ironic that when I went to the Voter Guide online, in every section after the title I found "no information legally required." What kind of advice can voters give under those circumstances?

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