Washington voters in November approved Initiative 976 by 53 percent, capping car tabs at $30 and significantly reducing state transportation revenue. Some state lawmakers have introduced legislation in both chambers that to some Capitol observers is intended to prevent such measures from passing again.
HB 2529 introduced by Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-33) and cosponsored by 10 other House Democrats would eliminate initiatives and referendums during odd-numbered years. The only votes allowed would be for county, city or special district elections.
Among the cosponsors are House Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey (D-27), Vice Chair Sharon Wylie (D-49), and committee member Rep. Gael Tarleton (D-36) who is running this year against Secretary of State Kim Wyman. The companion bill is SB 6503 introduced by Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34), also a member of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Yet the proposals, if enacted, would likely face a lawsuit for running afoul of provisions in the state constitution. Article 1 Section 34 states that “the authority hereby conferred upon the legislature shall not be construed to grant to the legislature any exclusive power of lawmaking nor in any way limit the initiative and referendum powers reserved by the people.”
Article 1 Section 1 states: “all political power is inherent in the people, and governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and are established to protect and maintain individual rights.” Article 2 Section 1 also states that “the people reserve to themselves the power to propose bills, laws, and to enact or reject the same at the polls, independent of the legislature, and also reserve power, at their own option, to approve or reject at the polls any act, item, section, or part of any bill, act, or law passed by the legislature.”
Washington Policy Center Government Reform Director Jason Mercier told Lens: “the constitution can’t be any clearer. What are they going to do for an encore next week?”
He added that although one potential argument in favor of the bills is that voter turnout during odd-numbered years is lower, “that’s applicable to every single measure trying to raise taxes,” which would still be permitted under the bills.
The proposals would have significant implications for tax policy. The legislature approves its biennial budget during odd-numbered years, which is typically also when new taxes are passed. Under these two bills, Washington voters would have to wait a full year before voting on any referendum on the ballot to repeal those taxes.
During a Jan. 15 interview with TVW, Wyman said that while she hadn’t read either bill “these are constitutional issues that our state feels pretty strongly about and voters feel strongly about. They want to have that ability to make laws. I am always concerned with any legislation that tries to limit or reduce the amount of accessibility to the initiative and referendum process.”
“It’s a bad idea for the legislature to try and infringe on the people right to petition and put questions on the ballot,” Kirkland City Councilmember Toby Nixon said. Nixon is also the president for the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
“I can speculate and say this is a very cynical attempt to only allow things to go on ballots when there’s a federal election going on, because there tends to be a higher turn of Democrats during those even year elections,but who knows what their real motivation is” Nixon said. “I just think that this whole thing is going to be received very badly from the people and be seen as the legislature attempting to take away a constitution right.”
HB 2529 is scheduled for a Jan. 22 public hearing in the House Committee on State Government & Tribal Relations. SB 6503 has been referred to the State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee, but no public hearing is scheduled at this time.