An initiative skeptic sizes up the ballot measures

Initiatives do more harm than good, so they deserve close scrutiny. Only one passes muster with this writer.

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Tax hater Tim Eyman drew boos at the transportation listening tour.

Initiatives do more harm than good, so they deserve close scrutiny. Only one passes muster with this writer.

Editor's note: Crosscut does not endorse candidates or ballot measures, though it permits writers to weigh in with their personal takes.

I don't like ballot measures.  These seemingly populist devices were adopted in western states when most were still entering their statehood.  Upstanding citizens saw them as a way around control of political decisionmaking processes by railroads, mining interests, and land-development companies which had bought and paid for state and local public officials. 
After a century's experience with ballot measures we can see their unintended consequences.  California is the best negative example.  It has established and disestablished policies and buried itself in long-term red ink, through passage of successive ballot measures which arbitrarily have raised and lowered taxes and spending without regard to the surrounding economic climate or citizens' best interests.  California governors and legislators have found it convenient to duck difficult political decisions, with hard tradeoffs, by simply bucking them to the ballot, where the best-organized, best-financed interest groups can pay for a statewide campaign that carries the day.
Now we have reached a point in Washington state and Seattle where Microsoft, Boeing, teacher and public-employee unions, and the Sound Transit contractor and sub-contractor universe not only have supplanted railroads, mining companies, and land-development companies as providers of votes and money to elected officials.  They also have seized as their own vehicles seemingly populist ballot measures which they can use to satisfy their objectives without going through the bothersome nuisance of a more deliberative legislative process. 

Public officials here, too, have ducked decisions and left them to ballot measures on matters ranging from an Alaskan Way viaduct replacement to Sound Transit light rail expanion to enforcement of local marijuana laws.  Seattle mayors and city councils also have used them to secure fresh revenues whenever they have mismanged city finances or made promises for which they could not pay.
My policy on ballot measures, therefore, is to scrutinize them skeptically.  Who will benefit from them?  Who will pay for them?  Do they serve the general public interest or the narrow interest of their sponsors?
Sometimes they pass muster. One on which I voted Yes was the measure generated by Tim Eyman to establish state performance audits to keep public and quasi-public agencies honest.  Outgoing State Auditor Brian Sonntag has used them to expose mismanagement and outright illegalities and to save taxpayers many millions of dollars.

Which brings us to the ballot measures on our fall ballots.  I have had little difficulty deciding my vote on the most prominent four.

Seattle Proposition 1:  This is a stunningly regressive measure that would impose a $60 car-tab increase on every Seattle car owner, whether the car was an aging junker, a luxury sedan, a truck, or a motorcyle.  This would come on top of a recent $20 car-tab increase for the same car owners.  King County recently passed its own $20 car-tab increase to pay for transit. (Disclosure: I've contributed to the campaign against this measure.)
There is a $1.5 billlion backlog of street, road, sidewalk, and bridge repairs in Seattle.  Some 67 of the city's 115 bridges are rated poor, structurally deficient, or obsolete by city planners.  These have no priority in Prop. 1. Nor would it add bus routes or bus service hours. Prospective expenditures in Prop. 1 are listed in general categories but the mayor and city council would not be bound by them and would have latitude to spend the $204 million, to be collected under the measure, as they later pleased.

Some $18 million would be earmarked for new streetcar planning.  (Streetcars and light rail are the most cost-ineffective modes of transportation in the city, since they carry fewer passengers at far higher cost than ordinary bus transit would carry.)  Prop. 1's sponsors emphasize its priorities of road diets, bike lanes, and sharrows.  Yet. even with present priority given to bike lanes and other accommodations, 27 of 32 locations counted in a Seattle city bicycle count showed fewer bikes in 2010 than in 2008.  Outside the downtown area, bikes fell in number by 15 percent. 
Prop. 1 represents a tranparent attempt by its sponsors to tax Seattleities from their cars, whether or not they need them for transportation, while neglecting wornout roads and bridges in favor of streetcar and new bicycle-related investments.This is a regressive and devious proposal which would pile new burdens on taxpayers during a continuing economic downturn.  Shame on Mayor McGinn, an economics graduate of Williams College, for advocating such an economically irresponsible proposal. I'm voting No.
Washington Initiative 1125:  This measure put forward by Eyman would prohibit use of motor-vehicle-fund revenue and vehicle toll revenues for non-transporation purposes and would require that road and bridge tolls be set by legislators and be project-specific.  It is opposed by what amounts to the state's business, labor, and transportation establishment.
Eyman argues that prospective road and bridge tolls are a way around tax-limitation measures.  He also argues that tolls on roads, bridges, and tunnels should cease once they are paid for.  Opponents argue that I-1125 would delay important pending transportation projects.  Much of their argument is directed against Eyman personally rather than on the substance of his proposal (usually an indicator that their substantive case is weak).  Eyman's case is OK to that point.
But the clinching argument, it seems to me, is opponents' argument that Washington state legislators should not set toll rates, as I-1125 specifies.   Many destructive scenarios can be imagined. The politically easy course, in many cases, would be to set tolls at a low level which could not recoup project costs.  Another possiblity: Would rural legislators vote to set artificially high tolls on Seattle-area projects?   I'd never put toll setting in legislators' hands. I would no more give legislators toll-setting authority than I would give matches to pre-schoolers sitting around a papier mache nativity scene. I also like variable tolling as a means of financing these projects. My vote: No.
Washington Initiative 1163:  This measure, sponsored and financed by the Service Employees International Union, would require federal background checks and more training for long-term care workers.  It would require that home-care workers receive the same training as nursing-home assistants.  On their face, these would appear commendable steps to safeguard the elderly and disabled.  It is opposed by home-care business operators but also government and senior-citizen spokespersons who argue that the training and background checks would cost $80 million over the next two years when the state faces a $2.8 billion budget deficit and that the $80 million would be diverted from direct services to a union-conducted training program.  They point out that state background checks and training already are required.
Were the state economy still growing, and the state budget in surplus, this proposal should get serious attention.  But, in the present financial and economic environment, it is a non-starter largely devised to benefit the union sponsoring it.  Another No.
Washington Initiative 1183:  This measure would close state liquor stores and sell their assets.  It would license private entities to sell and distribute spirits; set license fees based on sales; regulate licensees; and change regulation of wine distribution.
The media campaigns for and against this measure don't tell you that its principal sponsor is Costco, which wants to sell booze and wine out of its stores, and its principal opponents are out-of-state wine merchants.  The anti-1183 media campaign is just about the most misleading and dishonest I have seen in politics.  It would have you believe that teenagers, under 1183, would buy booze at grocery and retail stores, mini-marts, and gas stations and wreak havoc on the highways.  The measure, however, would allow only a limited number of grocery and retail outlets to obtain liquor licenses.   It also would bring hundreds of millions in new revenues for state and local services.
Washington is one of only eight states which still operate state liquor stores.  It is the only one of several in which I have lived which does so.  Illegal teenage alcohol consumption or related reckless driving are not characteristic of the 42 states which go the private way. State liquor stores require a bureacracy and public funds.  I can think of many functions which should only be met by public agencies: liquor sale is not one of them.  We should get out of the booze business and let the private sector do the job — and then pay taxes to us for the privilege of doing so. My vote will be a Yes.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of