After Years of Assaults on Initiatives, Senate Now Casts a Friendly Eye — Eyman’s ‘Initiative on Initiatives’ Passes Committee and Heads to Floor

Spate of Bills Aim to Buttress ‘Direct Democracy’ – Retailers Oppose Eyman's I-517

Signature gatherer parks in front of the Lacey Wal-Mart during last year's initiative season.

Signature gatherer parks in front of the Lacey Wal-Mart during last year’s initiative season.

OLYMPIA, Feb. 20.—Here’s one small measure of the difference the new leadership in the Senate has made – sometime soon, the full Senate likely will vote on bills that buttress the initiative process, rather than throwing acid on it. They might even include this year’s biggie, Initiative 517, the so-called ‘initiative on initiatives’ from ballot-measure promoter Tim Eyman, which would extend the time for signatures to be gathered and establish the right of signature gatherers to canvass in public places.

The Senate Government Operations Committee not only approved Eyman’s measure, it voted out bills that enact pieces of it in bite-size chunks. Other bills make technical corrections aimed at, of all things, making it easier to run initiatives. All of which might seem a natural thing to do, given voters’ fondness in recent years for taking matters into their own hands – but up until five weeks ago it seemed every effort by the Legislature to improve the process aimed to make it harder. And a full Senate vote on an initiative-to-the-Legislature? It’s happened, sure — but it has been 19 years since one made it all the way through.

State Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn.

State Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn.

Just goes to show there’s something different in the air this lawmaking season under the new Senate majority. Take this. After the panel took its vote late Monday night to pass Eyman’s I-517, Chairwoman Pam Roach, R-Auburn, asked committee staff to print out a copy of the bill report. “A nice, fresh clean one,” she said. “Because it says the sponsors are the people of the state of Washington. Somewhere I’m going to find a special place for that, it is just so awesome.”

Little Stuff That Counts

For all the fuss about abortion and guns this year, the about-face on initiative legislation might be a better measure of the change that has taken place under the coalition that now holds sway in the Senate. This session 23 Republicans and two Democrats joined to form a Majority Coalition, pledging a more moderate approach to spending and government reform. Meanwhile Dems are looking for ways to force social-issue votes that will force the coalition to veer right or even split it asunder. But while that big-picture work is going on, you can see that there’s plenty of activity in policy committees. Many under-the-radar measures making the cut have a rather unaccustomed tone. Like a bill that would require the creation of a one-stop website for payment of business taxes and would forbid the state’s larger cities from developing a competing site. Or a bill that requires that the Department of Revenue to publish all its tax-code determinations, not just the ones it selects. It’s the little stuff.

Initiative promoter Tim Eyman is flanked by 'Eddie Spaghetti' Agazarm, retired partner in Citizen Solutions, a signature gathering firm, and Paul Jacob of Citizens in Charge, a national organization that promotes the initiative process.

At the signature turn-in for I-517 last month, Tim Eyman is flanked by ‘Eddie Spaghetti’ Agazarm, retired partner in Citizen Solutions, a signature gathering firm, and Paul Jacob of Citizens in Charge, a national organization that promotes the initiative process.

So it goes with the initiative bills. Washington voters have had the right to initiative for 100 years now, but during the eight years that Democrats held the majority in the upper chamber, Eyman says he could always count on a bill that nibbled at the edges. And then initiative advocates would have to troop to Olympia to play defense. That’s why he filed the initiative in the first place. “We were thrilled that I-517 got a hearing, but we were absolutely blown away when Sen. Roach strongly advocated for I-517’s passage out of committee and she succeeded. Who’s the chair makes all the difference in the world.”

Big About-Face

Certainly those previous efforts at restrictions were prompted in part by Eyman’s remarkable 15-year record of successful anti-tax crusades, together with lawmakers’ distaste for the way those measures have restricted them. Left-of-center organizations like the Ballot Initiative Network, the Washington Public Interest Research Group and the Service Employees International Union kept coming up with ideas they said aimed to combat initiative fraud – though it often is hard to see how new laws might prevent the relative handful of fraud cases when current law does not. Proposals have included massive increases in initiative filing fees. No-signature zones near store entrances. Making initiative sponsors personally liable for violations committed by canvassers. Government registration, licenses and even badges for those who gather signatures. And criminal background checks for paid signature gatherers to determine if any of them are sex offenders.  Curiously, the most onerous of those proposals would not have affected canvassers employed by labor unions.

Normally those efforts have foundered somewhere between bill introduction and final passage, and of course, this year’s pro-initiative measures might suffer the same fate in the Democrat-controlled House. That’s particularly true for I-517, because it is Eyman’s baby – he doesn’t seem to have many card-carrying Democrats in his fan club. Yet this year there haven’t been any proposals to restrict the initiative process. That’s because they won’t get past the Senate Government Operations Committee, now dominated by two of the Legislature’s fiercest advocates for the initiative process, populist conservatives Roach and Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver. In fact, Roach seemed downright giddy last week when she opened the hearing on Eyman’s ballot measure. “If you had told me when I was age 12 that I was going to be fascinated by elections law, I would have said what? What in the world are you talking about?”

Wider Windows

State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

I-517 is the big ‘un, sponsored of course by Eyman and brought to you by Eddie “Spaghetti” Agazarm, retired co-founder of one of the state’s largest signature-gathering firms, Citizen Solutions. Its signature feature is that it adds six months to the window of time during which petitions can be circulated. Currently initiatives to the people – the measures that go straight to the ballot – have six months.  Initiatives to the Legislature have nine-and-a-half months.

It’s definitely a difference in philosophy. You want to fix the initiative process? Just make it easier to collect signatures, says Benton, sponsor of a similar measure that also made it out of committee. His SB 5499 would add 10 months to the window for initiatives to the people and make no changes to initiatives to the Legislature, but the principle is the same. “Citizens want to participate in their government and in Oregon they have two years to do an initiative drive,” he said. “In Washington they don’t. And in fact, over the years we’ve heard many initiative bills before this committee that talk about how horrible it is to have paid initiative signature gatherers, and why we should restrict that in this way or that way. Frankly, I believe that if we gave the citizens more time to collect the signatures you wouldn’t need paid signature gatherers.”

Maybe you wouldn’t need ‘em, but odds are they’d still be around. Ballot measures often are a response to the Legislature’s action or inaction, filed immediately after the end of a session, when only a few weeks remain before the first-week-in-July deadline and only a paid campaign can do the trick. Recent campaigns to repeal pop taxes, privatize liquor sales and permit charter schools paid through the nose; the charter-school initiative paid a whopping $7 a signature and set a record with its $2.7 million drive. So firms like Agazarm’s will still play a role. But he points out that at least technically it might be possible to run a successful all-volunteer drive – something that has become more difficult as the number of required signatures has increased to 246,372, and which hasn’t happened since 2000.

Opposition From Merchants

The campaign for I-517 piggy-backed on other paid drives last year, including Eyman's own I-1185, which required a two-thirds vote of House and Senate for tax increases.

The campaign for I-517 piggy-backed on other paid drives last year, including Eyman’s own I-1185, which required a two-thirds vote of House and Senate for tax increases.

Another element of Eyman’s I-517 could render it vulnerable to attack in the Rules Committee, where it must pause for a vote before it moves to the Senate floor.  Retailers are not amused about provisions that essentially establish a right to gather signatures in public places and on public walkways, including areas near store entrances. Most of that already has been spelled out by court rulings, but the initiative is a bit broader, and it adds sports stadiums and county fairs. It also makes it a crime to harass canvassers, intimidate them, engage in disruptive behavior, or even spit.

The initiative “strips our stores of their private property rights,” complained Jan Gee of the Washington Food Industry Association, which represents the state’s small grocers. And Steve Gano, who lobbies on behalf of Wal-Mart, said customers deserve protection, too. Signature gathering “has become a very expensive proposition, and some of the signatures go for $3, $4, $5 apiece,” he said. “People have a very high level of incentive to collect signatures, and folks that are just trying to go about their business to go shopping and do the things that they do will get hauled down or followed through a parking lot. A friend of mine who was six months pregnant was physically assaulted by some signature gatherer — I don’t know which one, but she was assaulted to sign her signature.”

Other Elements

Also making it out of the Senate panel is SB 5505, a cleanup bill that says when a local government counts signatures in an initiative signature drive and a voter signs more than once, the first signature is counted and the others are not. That’s the way current law works in statewide initiatives; in local initiatives, all duplicates are thrown out, even the first. This year a Clark County anti-light-rail initiative was turned in with thousands more signatures than needed, and it would have qualified under the state rules, but because of the throw-‘em out provision, the measure missed the mark by 35 signatures. SB 5676 would force the secretary of state’s office to redact signatures when it makes petitions public under the Open Records Act – availability of signatures is thought a deterrent to signers.

A final bill, SB 5347, duplicates another part of Eyman’s measure. Sponsored by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center – it declares that even local initiatives must proceed to the ballot when voters turn in sufficient signatures. At least 60 cities and several counties permit initiatives. But local officials have frequently found reasons to refuse them once signatures are gathered. Sometimes they decide for themselves the measures deal with legally impermissible subjects. In other cases opponents have won court injunctions. The result is that signature gathering efforts are rendered moot even though there is no legal determination. That strategy was used to block the spate of red-light camera initiatives Eyman ran two years ago, but that’s far from the only example. Stonewall Jackson Bird told of a “community bill of rights” measure he ran last summer in Bellingham, overturning corporate personhood, declaring the environment to have the rights of a human being, and generally forcing new government priorities of a progressive stripe. The city sued to keep the measure off the ballot; no vote took place.

“I never thought in my life that I would support a Tim Eyman initiative, but I am here,” he said at last week’s hearing.

And Rivers said she’d never vote for Bird’s initiative, “but I will fight to the death for your right to have your day on the ballot.”