From Slots to Tots

This year's initiatives address everything from gambling to education funding. But new research suggests that voters are poorly prepared to make such big policy decisions.

The Legislature adjourned last week, and initiative king Tim Eyman prepared to make state law. This year, per usual as of late, initiatives will determine our state's future. Whether it's Tim Eyman's initiatives on taxes, the League of Education Voters' ballot measure on school funding, or road construction advocates' proposal on transportation, direct votes by the people will set the course. This worries John Gastil, University of Washington professor of communication, whose research shows that most voters lack the basic information about initiative contents, let alone grasp the fine print. Initiative sponsors are unapologetic. Says Eyman: "I discount his voters-are-stupid argument."

On Tuesday, March 9, Eyman announced his latest initiative, which would expand gambling in the state and use the revenue to cut state-levied property taxes by up to $400 million annually. The measure, which has not yet been assigned a number by the secretary of state's office, is likely headed to November's ballot, along with Initiative 864, his previous proposal to cut the property taxes of local governments by 25 percent. Voters will probably also vote on Initiative 884, the $1 billion per year tax increase put forward by the League of Education Voters to increase education funding from preschool through four years of college by increasing the sales tax. Meanwhile, developer Kemper Freeman and his allies want the citizens to vote for Initiative 883, to compel the state Department of Transportation to create a "congestion relief fund"—i.e., direct more money to new highway construction—and open up and perhaps eliminate high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes.

While none of these measures is on the ballot yet, Initiative 297 is. Heart of America Northwest, an environ­mental watchdog, is pushing I-297 to prevent the Bush administration from turning the Hanford Nuclear Reservation into a national depository for radio­active waste.

Are voters ready for these difficult decisions? Professor Gastil doesn't think so. "It's comic, governing this way," he says. One week before last November's general election, Gastil and Ned Crosby, of the Jefferson Center in Minnesota, commissioned a survey of 400 likely voters in King County—people who had voted in two of the past four elections—to see how informed they were about ballot measures. The results shocked the researchers. More than 50 percent could not recall a single measure on the upcoming ballot. When reminded of the initiatives and referenda that were to be decided, 65 percent could not remember any arguments in favor of any of them, 62 percent could not cite an argument against a single one. One third were well informed, one third planning to follow "party cues," and one third were just plain flailing, according to Gastil.

League of Education Voters President Lisa Macfarlane feels Gastil is singling out initiatives unfairly. "This is a deeper issue," she says. "It's about the strength of our democracy and whether voters are reading or listening." She asks, "What about the quality of deliberation that goes on in all voting?" She would like to see how informed voters were about choosing judges, for instance.

Gastil readily concedes that surveys do not show that voters are well informed about candidate choices, either.

Tax-cutter Eyman proposes a different survey for Gastil. "I'd love to see him poll legislators." Eyman contends that initiatives receive much closer scrutiny than most legislation that comes before politicians. "We get a total rectal exam on every proposal," he quips. "The amount of information is radically more than what the average legislator gets on a bill or a budget."

Gastil disagrees with Eyman's contention. "When our Legislature has to make these substantive votes on policy, we provide them with tremendous infra­structure." Gastil is referring to the legislative staff members, department researchers, and lawyers from the attorney general's office that provide information for legislators to use in their deliberations.

In fact, Gastil wants to beef up the voters' information infrastructure. "When we do initiatives, we have no infrastructure except the voters' pamphlet," he complains. Gastil favors convening citizen juries, 25 randomly selected but statistically representative Washingtonians, who would study a particular initiative and have their findings published in the voters' pamphlet. "Washingtonians like the initiative process," says Gastil, but "a clear majority think it needs to be reformed." He thinks citizen juries would be a palatable way to help voters make informed choices.

State Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, has a simpler solution: eliminate initiatives and referenda. Last year, he introduced a constitutional amendment to do just that. He says ballot measures are making the state ungovernable. "Each year, voters go to the polls and pass a slate of initiatives. Some propose costly improvements to state services, others eliminate taxes," Jacobsen says. "What this says to me is the system is broken." One of Jacobsen's favorite examples is from 1998, when we passed Referendum 49, which funded transportation projects. The next year, we passed Initiative 695, which eliminated the tax that made R-49 possible. "We don't hook up one year with the next," he complains. "I am the only republican, in that I believe in the republican form of government."

Legislators from both parties echo his frustration, but initiative backers are just as fed up with politicians who won't act on their issues.

"Look at the Legislature," says Moxie Media's John Wyble, a Democratic political consultant and past initiative sponsor. "It's not a good tool for getting stuff done." Wyble says the Legislature is so paralyzed by partisan gridlock—the state Senate is narrowly controlled by Republicans, while Democrats hold a slim majority in the state House—that it is unable to address many of the central problems of the day. Many groups feel they have no choice but to go directly to the people.

That's certainly the case for the League of Education Voters' Macfarlane. "I do believe in representative democracy," she says. "Initiatives are not our preferred way of doing public policy." She says, however, that the urgency of the problem of education funding has compelled her group to run a major initiative for the second time in four years. "Kids don't have long shelf lives," she notes. "Some people may think initiatives are an easy way to do things. They're not." Macfarlane also points out that before her education funding proposal became an initiative, it was offered as legislation by Democratic Gov. Gary Locke. "There was no interest," she says.

Tax rebel Eyman is more committed to initiatives on principal. He says his organization is dedicated to "solving problems politicians won't." He says cutting property taxes is a problem that cries out to be addressed. "The property-tax problem has built up over a long period of time. My supporters say, 'I've told my legislators for years my property taxes were too high.'" Eyman believes initiatives are vital to democracy.

Heart of America Northwest's executive director, Gerald Pollet, groans: "I hate to be cast in the same pool as Tim Eyman!" Yet the dedicated environmentalist and Democratic activist has been involved in many initiatives over the years. "There is an important role for initiatives to play when, despite an overwhelming support, you can't change the law." Pollet claims that is the case this year with his group's proposal to halt the Bush administration's expansion of the use of Hanford as a waste depository. Their proposal first was an initiative to the Legislature. Under those rules, the signatures must be gathered in the less-hospitable winter months and the measure is delivered to legislators when they start work. The lawmakers can pass the initiative directly into law or, as happened with I-297, take no action, in which case it goes onto the November ballot. Pollet says the major obstacle to the passage of his group's proposal is the power held by Senate majority caucus Chair Pat Hale, R-Kennewick, who works for Fluor Hanford, the main contractor at the nuclear-waste depository. Our proposal "wasn't ever going to go anywhere in the state Senate," Pollet says.

On a broader level, Pollet doesn't believe that voters are as poorly educated as Gastil's study suggests. "I oppose Tim Eyman's initiatives personally, but it's hard to tell people who voted to reduce their car tabs that they were uninformed," Pollet says. He thinks the advent of voting by mail has led to greater deliberation. "You can't make a blanket statement that people don't have enough infor­mation," he says.

Gastil says his research supports that claim and more. "Things are not working," he says. "They are working even more poorly than we thought. Are people deliberating at a meaningful level?" When his survey asked people to summarize a point of view different from their own, most could not. Says Gastil, "We can come up with many examples of how what we have done is contradictory." He issues a challenge to initiative sponsors. "If you use the initiative for your benefit, I wish you would put some energy into improving it."

ghowland@seattleweekly.com

 
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