Thursday, October 30, 2008

Politics: Enough with Initiatives

PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA - Change happens quickly in California. One day nothing more than dial-up Internet access was available in Fremont, seemingly the next the city was wired for what we would now call primitive cable modems, and almost the next day that system was obsolete. In no realm does change happen faster than in politics. One day Gray Davis was the governor, and seemingly the next he had been recalled and Arnold Schwarzenegger was in the office. This year, some of the twelve propositions on the ballot may lead to yet more whiplash.

Citizens' Initiatives, originally designed to give the citizenry recourse in the face of elected government unwilling to take action on important issues, have in recent years instead served to make it almost impossible for government to function. The best example of this trend is probably not California, but instead Washington state.

There, a man named Tim Eyman has actually made his living from initiatives. His first major effort, Initiative 200 in 1997, was similar in purpose to California's Proposition 209, banning affirmative action. With notable help from conservative talk show host John Carlson, who later ran for governor, the measure not only collected enough signatures to get on the ballot but also passed.

Eyman really made a name for himself in 1999 with Initiative 695. An earlier attempt to repeal the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax in 1998 had failed, but Initiative 695 not only replaced the tax with a flat $30 fee per vehicle, but also required voter approval for any tax increase so that government could not make up the loss of revenue by imposing alternative taxes. It passed, and state government went into a crisis, particularly the Department of Transportation.

When the smoke cleared, Initiative 695 had been declared unconstitutional for addressing more than one topic (the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax and voter approval of new taxes), but the legislature had passed similar legislation because of the clear voter opinion that had been expressed. Major highway projects across the state were delayed, and some needed enhancements, including the rebuilding of certain aging Washington State Ferries, were canceled entirely, setting the stage for the current vessel shortage today.

After his effective victory with Initiative 695, Eyman founded a political committee called Permanent Offense and began working on more conservative initiatives. As a private committee, it did not have to report on its finances to the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission. Eventually, it came out that the group used paid signature gathers--a practice upheld as protected by the right to free speech. Even more controversially, in 2002 it came out that Eyman paid himself, contrary to earlier statements that implied he was working for free.

Meanwhile, the trail of initiatives rolled on. Between 2000 and 2007, Eyman has been involved in 13 initiatives and referendums. Of these, five failed to qualify for the ballot, two were defeated by voters, two were passed but declared unconstitutional, and four have taken law and been upheld. An organization called "Permanent Defense" formed to counter "Permanent Offense". Perhaps most amusingly, David Goldstein started an initiative to declare Eyman a horse's ass, which has since turned into one of Washington's premier liberal blogs.

It has gotten to the point where the legislature can't count on measures being enacted for long as they could be changed through the initiative process. A long-term idea that has short-term unpopularity almost can't be enacted for fear of repeal. While proponents say Eyman gives conservatives a voice that otherwise isn't heard in Washington, critics say he legislates through initiatives in an unaccountable manner. I would say that if conservatives don't have a voice, it's because they haven't won enough elections to gain that voice.

This year, Eyman is behind Initiative 685, a measure which purportedly would reduce traffic congestion. However, even for an Eyman initiative, it seems to have bizarre aspects, including diverting funding to traffic light synchronization even in counties that do not require it. In an appearance on the Dave Ross Show on 21-October-2008, Eyman seemed to be out-debated by neighborhood activist Andrea O'Comsky and transportation secretary Doug MacDonald.

My great aunt's advice applies on Eyman-backed and all other initiatives--the default position should be to let lawmakers govern, and if you don't like what they're doing, vote them out instead of micromanaging them through the initiative process.

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