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Originally published February 24, 2010 at 9:34 PM | Page modified February 24, 2010 at 10:14 PM

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'Will of the people' often subjected to tinkering

In the past decade, state lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — have poked holes in voter-approved initiatives that restrained state spending, gave automatic raises to teachers and demanded more money for public schools, among others.

Seattle Times political reporter

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OLYMPIA — As Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill clearing the way for tax increases Wednesday, the outcry was strong, just as it has been for the past several weeks as the measure inched through the Legislature.

"Can't you at least put up a facade that you are paying attention to what the voters are saying?" said Tim Eyman, sponsor of Initiative 960, after watching Gregoire sign the bill suspending for a year the requirement for a two-thirds vote of the Legislature — or a public vote — for any tax increase.

At times, the rhetoric from I-960 supporters has been incredulous and angry, as though voter-approved initiatives were sacred texts, never to be rewritten.

One Republican compared the Legislature's actions to a "total solar eclipse." Protesters have gathered on the Capitol steps and some lawmakers have received threatening e-mails, including one suggesting those who vote to overturn I-960 "should be hanged from the neck until dead."

But this is hardly the first time lawmakers have gone against the "will of the people" as expressed by initiatives.

In the past decade, state lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — have poked holes in voter-approved initiatives that restrained state spending, gave automatic raises to teachers and demanded more money for public schools, among others.

Some of those measures won by much wider margins than I-960, which was approved by 51 percent of voters in 2007.

"The people who complain about this always pick and choose which initiatives they are complaining about," said Hugh Spitzer, an affiliate professor at the University of Washington Law School and co-author of a book on the state constitution, which lays out a balance of power between the public at large and elected officials.

The state constitution says the initiative process is "the first power reserved by the people," yet it allows the Legislature to rewrite any initiative with a two-thirds vote in the first two years. After that, it takes only a simple majority.

It wasn't always that way. Before a 1952 amendment, the constitution said the Legislature couldn't make any changes to initiatives for two years.

Curiously, given the strong feelings about initiatives today, the 1952 amendment was easily approved by voters. Judging from news coverage, it was scarcely controversial. An initiative legalizing the sale of yellow margarine — over the vehement protests of dairy farmers — proved far more divisive.

Since then, lawmakers have amended or repealed at least 30 voter-approved initiatives, according to Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed's office.

In the past decade, it's frequently been Democrats agitating against a series of tax limits implemented by voter initiatives, such as I-960. But Republicans have played a role, too.

In 2000, the Legislature punched a big hole in Initiative 601, a 1993 measure that created a strict state spending cap. Basically, lawmakers decided to use budgetary shifts to get around the I-601 limit. The bill to make that possible received crucial support from GOP leaders in the state House, which at the time was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

Supporters and opponents of I-960 have spent a lot of time arguing about whether it should be given any more deference than the many others that have been watered down or repealed over the years.

Democrats like to point to Initiatives 728 and 732, both approved by big margins in 2000. Those initiatives demanded that the Legislature grant automatic cost-of-living raises to teachers and dedicate money to reduce class sizes in public schools.

Yet the Legislature suspended those requirements in lean times, and budget writers plan to do so again this year.

Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, said he's heard a lot of angry talk from Republicans about I-960's suspension, yet "I didn't hear that outrage" when the Legislature backed off the education initiatives.

Republicans argue there are some big differences between those measures and I-960.

The education initiatives gave no new funding to the state even though they required hundreds of millions a year in additional spending on schools. The voters-pamphlet statement on I-728 boasted that it could be funded "without raising taxes or taking money away from other programs."

When a 2004 initiative proposed raising the state sales tax by a penny to pay for better schools, voters overwhelmingly rejected it.

Meanwhile, voters have endorsed I-960's main provision — the two-thirds legislative vote requirement for tax increases — three times since 1993.

"It should be hard to go against the will of the people. It shouldn't be an easy thing," said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama.

Orcutt noted that I-960 provides an "out" for legislators if they can't get a two-thirds vote in the Legislature for tax increases. They can send any proposed taxes to the ballot for voters to approve. Democrats have ruled that out.

In signing the bill suspending I-960 on Wednesday, Gregoire noted that voters had approved the measure before the current economic crisis.

"They did it in a time when we weren't facing the greatest recession in the state of Washington," Gregoire said. The bill suspends the initiative until July 2011.

Eyman who stood just behind Gregoire during the bill-signing ceremony, made a thumbs-down gesture and held his nose for the cameras. He's already filed a new initiative to restore the two-thirds requirement for tax increases.

While he'd expected lawmakers to throw out I-960's restrictions on tax votes, Eyman said he was shocked they also axed "transparency" requirements, including advisory votes on any tax increases approved by the Legislature and a requirement that the names of lawmakers voting for tax increases be printed in voters pamphlets.

Gregoire said those provisions were of questionable worth and printing the information in the pamphlets would be costly.

Spitzer, the UW law professor, said initiatives place unrealistic demands on the Legislature, and it makes sense that lawmakers frequently need to revisit them.

"I have a simple solution: Every initiative which institutes a new program must provide a tax source. Every initiative that cuts taxes must specify in detail which programs would be cut," Spitzer said.

That's unlikely to happen.

But the public this fall may get to judge the Legislature's actions twice. Voters could be voting on Eyman's latest initiative, assuming it qualifies for the ballot. And voters will get a chance to reshape the Legislature, with the entire state House up for election.

Jim Brunner: 360-236-8267 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

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