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Originally published June 22, 2010 at 10:03 PM | Page modified June 23, 2010 at 12:01 AM

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From silly to serious, initiative efforts abound

Maybe it's frustration with the government, the lousy economy or just a general state of discontent. But the number of statewide initiatives filed for the November ballot is at an all-time high. And at least a half-dozen are expected to make it before voters, including a proposed income tax on high-wage earners, a repeal of taxes on soda, bottled water and candy, and at least one proposal to privatize state liquor sales.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Maybe it's frustration with the government, the lousy economy or just a general mood of discontent. But the number of initiatives filed for November's statewide ballot is at an all-time high.

On the Secretary of State's website, 75 "initiatives to the people" have been filed since January.

They range from serious to silly, the most outlandish being I-1069, which would require the Washington state seal "to depict a tapeworm attached to a taxpayer's intestine, encircled by the words: Committed to sucking the life blood out of each and every taxpayer." Another proposes to repeal all laws enacted in 2010.

Not all 75, of course, have traction. Some are duplicates, others have been withdrawn. In the end, a half-dozen or so are expected to turn in signatures, including proposals to privatize liquor stores, impose an income tax on high earners and repeal recent tax increases on soda, bottled water, candy and some processed foods.

Four campaigns said Tuesday that they'll have the needed 241,153 signatures from registered Washington voters by the July 2 deadline to qualify for the November ballot. Others that might turn in signatures, according to the Secretary of State's Office, are an initiative from Tim Eyman to reinstate a two-thirds vote requirement to raise state taxes and a second version of a proposal to close state liquor stores.

Backers of a campaign to legalize marijuana say they're not giving up, either. They are out on street corners collecting signatures and inserted 80,000 petitions in Wednesday's issue of The Stranger in a last-minute push.

In 1914, the number of citizen-backed initiatives on the Washington ballot hit seven — a record that has never been broken. The last time Washington came close was in 2000, when six initiatives appeared on the ballot.

"We theorize that initiatives are at their most popular when times are tough," said David Ammons, spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office. "People have various ideas for fixing things."

Besides that, all it takes to file is "five bucks and a bright idea," he said.

But getting that idea on the ballot is quite another feat — one that requires energy, persistence and, more often than not, tens of thousands of dollars.

The Secretary of State's Office strongly recommends getting at least 300,000 signatures, since historically there's been an 18 percent error rate.

The number of required signatures changes every four years. It's based on 8 percent of the total ballots cast in the last gubernatorial election.

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As the population grows, "the threshold to get on the ballot goes higher and makes it more expensive," said Todd Donovan, professor of political science at Western Washington University, who studies the initiative process.

The initiatives aggressively trying to make this year's ballot include:

• I-1100, a measure backed by Costco that would take the state out of the liquor-store business.

• I-1082, which would allow private workers' compensation insurance to compete with the state government system.

• I-1098, which would impose an income tax on individuals earning more than $200,000 annually or couples with adjusted gross incomes of more than $400,000 annually.

• I-1107, which would repeal recent tax increases approved by the state Legislature on soda, candy and certain processed foods.

• I-1053, an Eyman measure that would reinstate the need for a two-thirds legislative majority, or voter approval, to raise taxes.

• I-1105, a competing liquor-store measure that would "close all state liquor stores and license private parties to sell or distribute spirits."

Campaigns do use volunteers to get those sought-after names to qualify for a ballot spot. But often, the most efficient way is to contract with a signature-gathering company.

"It's a new phenomenon," Ammons said. "It's very rare to get on the ballot now without paying people to get the signatures."

The workers are usually staked outside grocery stores, festivals and sports stadiums. Clipboards in hand, they ask for a moment of your time and drop a short spiel on the proposed measure. If you sign, they get paid.

The fees vary. Sandeep Kaushik, spokesman for the I-1098 income-tax proposal, said his campaign is using a mix of "enthusiastic volunteers" and paid signature gatherers.

The cost per signature is between $2 and $3, he said. He added that the campaign locked in a rate with a company early on because "the closer you get to the deadline, the costs tend to go up."

Tuesday, at the corner of Second Avenue and Pine Street in Seattle, signature-gatherer Mike Raupp was collecting names for I-1068, a measure to legalize marijuana, and I-1105, a measure to close all state liquor stores.

He said the liquor-store campaign paid him $2.50 per name. But the marijuana one? Not a penny.

Eyman, a political activist who's been sponsoring state initiatives since 1999, said he's seen the ballot field get more and more competitive in recent years.

"This is not for the fainthearted," he said.

The most money he spent for gathering signatures, he said, was $543,000 in 2007 for I-960, which required a two-thirds majority of the Legislature for all tax increases. (Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a new law this year that suspends I-960. Eyman is responding with I-1053.)

Having enough money does play a big role in getting on the ballot, he said. But it's not all you need, he added.

"If you have an idea and it really resonates with people, anything is possible."

Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com

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