Here's how the initiative process is supposed to work: Like-minded citizens, activists and volunteers passionate about a law they think should be created or changed collect enough signatures to qualify the issue for a public vote. The people make their decision and a law is created or it isn't.
Illustration by Tim Gabor Krist Novoselic's column runs every Tuesday on the Daily Weekly.
In truth, it works more like this: Deep pockets and special interests want to create or change public policy. They contract with signature-gathering services who pay petitioners a couple bucks per signature. These professional petitioners then stand on the corner and ask, "Do you want to pay less in taxes or fees?" Most people agree and sign. The proposal then qualifies for a public vote.
Washington state's king of the latter, of course, is Tim Eyman, a for-profit political activist who made his mark with I-695, a ballot initiative that established a flat $30 fee for registering a car.Of course people want to pay less in taxes and fees like car tabs. This sentiment is the low-hanging fruit Eyman lives off. In 1999, San Francisco voters actually passed a ballot measure that banned banks from charging fees on ATM transactions. Voters didn't care if bank machines cost money to buy and maintain - the $1.50 is a drag to pay.
(What if we had national referendums? There could be a ballot question that proposed giving every registered voter in the county one million dollars as part of the economic stimulus. How would you vote on this?)
The citizen referendum can be a blunt instrument and many have been struck down by the courts. Yet the courts have said that you can't ban paid signature-gatherers. There are still attempts to regulate the profiteering. Some legislatures have made it to where you can only pay petitioners a salary or per hour and not per signature they gather. There are other hoops signature collecting companies are made to jump through--anything to put the brakes on the for-profit motivation in initiative peddling.
Tim Eyman's shtick is to bash politicians, but he's as much a public figure and fundraiser as the insiders he taunts in Olympia. And his professional initiative-peddling has had major impacts on state policy. We're supposed to have a republican form of government. Yet with the powerful for-profit ballot measure business - we now have an initiative king.
King Eyman used to claim he was only an activist, until it was discovered he was paying himself from the funds he collected from donors to his initiatives. He tearfully confessed and after the waterworks, he's now open about how he makes his living. And I've coined a term for him: the profitician, conflating the words profiteer and politician. Both the politician and the profitician need financial contributors so they can promote their agenda. And enough individual donors, large and small, support the base appeal of lower taxes to the point where Eyman can make a living.
Even if the ballot question fails, the profitician still gets paid only to file another initiative to keep the gig rolling.
Money in politics is like water: it finds a way to seep in. People complain about crooked politicians, but even the initiative system, intended to place democracy directly into the hands of the people, is corrupted.