The ballot measures: How one observer looks at the current crop
by Ted Van Dyk
Washington state ballot (2010). Credit: 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.
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