Democracy in Peril
December 5, 2019
Initiative 976 establishing $30 car tags was once again supported by a solid majority of our state’s voters. If this were an election between two candidates, the loser would have conceded long ago. Not so with this initiative. This is the third time in less than a decade that the exact question has been brought before the people. Democracy has once again ruled, and it should be a closed issue, but it’s not.
As was the case in previous elections, opponents are asking the courts to overturn the results. There is no doubt about the will of the people. Those who are opposed to Initiative 976 are petitioning the court to check administrative details to see if a friendly judge can find a loophole. Inviting the courts into politics seems to be a trend. We are in danger of becoming a society ruled by judge rather than by the voice of the people.
Our Governor campaigned against 976 before the election. He continues to campaign for the opposition by threatening to slash the transportation budget. He has helped fuel a panic that makes no sense. Transportation funding will only be slashed if the legislature decides to punish the voters. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but it isn’t the way our state budget is supposed to work. With few expectations, all state income is added to the income side of the ledger. Once there, the source of the money loses its identity. Income is income and all of it goes into the left side of the ledger. Gas taxes are not earmarked for roads any more than inheritance taxes are earmarked for schools. Distribution of funds is a separate activity. The legislature is supposed to dole out funds based on priority. School funding is a good example. Our state constitution specifies public schools to be fully funded. Thus, education moneys are at the top of the priority list. All other agencies, programs, and projects compete for funding. Transportation is only one line item on a long list of requirements that vie for our state’s money. So, in a perfect world, 976 would result in a cutback of only the lowest priority demands on our state’s funds. Our legislature, however, is not accustomed to making hard budget decisions. We had a significant surplus last year, so our lawmakers could pretty much fund everything they wanted. They haven’t had to decide whether to fix bridges or save the whales because there was money to do both. Initiative 976 may force the legislature to prioritize how they spend our tax money.
When initiatives are passed, they become state laws no different than the bills passed by the legislature and signed by the governor. When our laws are challenged, it is the responsibility of the Attorney General to defend the laws of state. In this case, it is to defend 976, not work against it. Our Attorney General, however, is an outspoken opponent of Initiative 976 and its sponsor, Tim Eyman. The Attorney General’s lawsuit against Mr. Eyman is a blatant conflict of interest and leaves the people with no legal advocate. With no one to litigate for the voters, it would seem the initiative is doomed, and once again the will of the people will be ignored.
Our governor would do well to study the history of Tom Foley. He sued the voters and became the only Speaker of the House to fail to be reelected. Washington State voters have not been kind to politicians who sued the voters. Nor should we be kind this time. It is easy to throw our hands up and allow our elected rulers to dictate. Citizen involvement, however, gets their attention. Email your state representatives.
(Frank Watson is a retired Air Force Colonel and a long time resident of Eastern Washington. He has been a free lance columnist for over 18 years.)