A proposal from serial petitioner Tim Eyman to make it easier to launch future local initiatives met little opposition in its introduction to the state House of Representatives Tuesday.
Initiative 517 would give petitioners more time to gather signatures, as well as carving out broad new protections for initiative sponsors and signature gatherers. Legislators hearing the bill mostly focused their questions on a clause that would give signature gatherers a right to be on parts of private property that could be considered "public forums," such as privately owned sidewalks in front of stores.
Advocates for retailers in the state voiced the strongest objections at the hearing.
"In essence it takes control away from the owners of our stores," said Jan Gee, president of the Washington Food Industry Association, a group including retailers. The presence of paid signature gatherers has been a growing problem for stores in Washington, Gee said.
"Over the last several years the complaints have increased significantly," she said.
Two types of initiatives are allowed in Washington state: one that goes directly to the ballot, and one that, after the necessary signatures are gathered, goes before the state Legislature, giving lawmakers the option to skip a vote and sign the initiative straight into law. If Eyman's measure fails to win approval from lawmakers, it will be on the November ballot.
Supporters of the measure downplayed the importance of the part allowing petitioners onto private property. Instead, they pointed to a section of the initiative not specifically outlined in the summary given out at the hearing, but which they said was just as important: a restriction on the ability of cities and counties to challenge initiatives before they reached the ballot.
Enumclaw Republican Sen Pam Roach spoke in favor of the bill, and was the first to bring up the prohibition on action at the local level.
"What I like about this initiative," Roach said, "is it protects the citizens in cities and counties to exercise their right to the initiative process."
Only a few Washington cities and counties allow local intiatives. Under current law, those initiatives can be challenged or even voted down by a city council before reaching a general vote. The initiative would prohibit those challenges, effectively forcing those cities that do allow initiatives to put each one that gathers enough signatures on the ballot.
Eyman, who makes a business of promoting initiatives, said he was motivated to launch the initiative by what he characterized as repeated blocks of initiatives at the local level around the state, including at least one of his own. Eyman cited six cases starting in 2010, mostly involving red light cameras, where he said initiatives had garnered popular support only to be blocked by city authorities before getting on the balot.
Eyman also called the attempt to keep petitioners off private property disingenious.
"We are talking about when [property owners] open themselves up to the public," Eyman said, "Once you allow Girl Scouts and veterans clubs and bellringers to be in front of your group, you've opened yourself up to the public."
The introduction of the initiative to the House came after a similar move in the Senate. Lawmakers there heard the initiative in early January. The measure passed out of a committee chaired by Roach last month but hasn't been scheduled for a vote by the Senate as a whole.
This story has been changed since it first appeared.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!