The transit workers who sued last week to overturn Initiative 695 won’t be the last to go to court. Holders of soon-to-be-downgraded state and local bonds will likely sue on grounds that, by nixing their taxing authority, the initiative weakens governments’ ability to pay off their bonds, in violation of existing contracts. The City of Bremerton, which will take a double hit when 695 cuts back tax revenues and ferry service, is weighing whether to sue. That’ll take some political courage, however; most Bremerton voters went for 695. Seattle attorney Jim Robart says “at least four or five cities have contacted us” about possibly suing, but they worry about crossing the public vote.
No such qualms on Vashon Island, which depends even more on ferries. Last Monday its community council voted to take 695 to court ASAP, in hopes of getting a stay on it come Y2K. No problem finding a good lawyer, says council president Jake Jacobovitch: “We’ve got a whole bunch of attorneys on the island.”
Sink or swim
The surprise isn’t that the islanders are rushing to the legal barricades. Their stake is obvious; with its passenger and late-night ferries soon to be canceled and its buses and remaining ferries consequently overloaded, getting to convenient Vashon will become more like getting to Friday Harbor. The surprise is that 35 percent of them (not to mention most Bremertonians) voted for 695.
Why do people vote for such crazy cut-off-your-nose measures? To spite their faces, for starters—we’ll show them damn politicians what for. The most quality-conscious consumers (when they’re shopping for, say, a car) become bitter Scrooges when public bills come due. They forget the first lesson: You don’t always get what you pay for. But you don’t get what you don’t pay for.
Spite got a special boost from lingering resentment over the new sports stadiums—piqued by Junior Griffey’s timely departure from the Mariners, which made their stadium seem even more a boondoggle. Voters, like generals, are always fighting the last war; I-695 was the stadium vote we never quite got to have. Folks keep saying they voted or “nearly” voted for it because of the stadiums. They forget that the Seahawks’ private owner bought the football-stadium vote and that, two years before the state Republicans endorsed 695, the Republican-led legislature (with plenty of Democratic connivance) forced the Mariners stadium on voters who’d rejected it. Republican chair Dale Foreman ought to wear a big red “695” to celebrate—and to take the rap when things fall apart.
Here it comes, judge
I heard one greenish liberal boast that he voted for 695 because he “didn’t want to see another foot of highway get built.” For that, he’d sacrifice public transit. As for 695’s second, bigger whammy, the public vote on all taxes and fees, no problem: “The courts will throw that out.” Just like Bill Gates figures things will work out in the courts.
Still, 695 looks vulnerable on many constitutional grounds. Among those the lawyers are considering: It overturns the state’s constitutionally mandated taxing power and legislative authority. It violates the rule that “no bill may embrace more than one subject, and that shall be expressed in the title.” (It includes four measures, some only tenuously related, one of which isn’t in the title.) The constitution also forbids amending laws by reference (i.e., without citing them), which is what 695 would do to a slew of state laws that delegate tax and rate-setting authority to local governments. And it says nothing about which voters should vote on a particular tax or fee. Who is the “electorate” for a housing authority or local improvement district?
Those last three problems also cut to the initiative’s political and ethical uncertainties: What did folks actually vote for or think they were voting for? I-695 was an electoral Rorschach test, into which voters projected whatever message or outcome they wanted. Now, whatever they get, they can be disappointed, blame government again, and teach it another lesson by nixing another tax.
Again we’ll hear the old refrain about “running government like a business.” Would that mean reinstituting graft, the public sector equivalent of business’ stock options? Or making government exquisitely efficient? Anyone who’s survived trial by meetings at Microsoft or production boondoggles at Boeing knows government has no monopoly on inefficiency. Welcome to human nature.
The Dilbert school of statesmanship
The first rule of running a business is to hire good people and let them do their jobs; micromanagers finish last. But initiative mania is turning us into a polity of micromanagers, whiplashing our solons with one new half-baked, contradictory directive after another. One year we approve highway and transit-building Referendum 49. The next year we kick out its legs with 695. Now we’re going to read voter’s guides as long as bill mark-ups and turn out to vote on every fiscal measure? No problem, Foreman declared in a preelection op-ed: In Colorado, which pioneered such fiscal votes, “Most of the local tax and fee proposals pass.” But Coloradoans only vote on taxes, not fees. They didn’t knock a billion out of their budget at the same time, as we voted to do.
So many loose ends, messy details, and blithe oversights. . . . But 695 has some silver linings. When the ferries stop running, the potholes start spreading, the clinics start shutting, and the cops take even longer to show up, some aggrieved citizens may get an inkling of consequences. We’ll stop chanting “government is bad” and setting out to prove it so by making it worse. And we’ll realize that we have hamstrung the enemy, and it is us.