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Originally published Wednesday, June 2, 2010 at 4:25 PM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Flood of statewide initiatives is a sign of anxious times

The simple chore of going to the grocery store becomes more complicated. Initiative signature gatherers are out in force in this banner year. Initiatives reflect angst and discomfort with a Legislature that did not act boldly enough.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

The most routine of daily chores — dashing out to pick up food or other necessities — suddenly becomes more complicated. The phalanx of signature gatherers outside grocery stores and other venues is something to behold. "Tax the rich?" yells one eager beaver in front of a Seattle Safeway. "Hey, over here," bellows another. "Legalize marijuana in Washington state!"

'Tis the season of the pen and clipboard, all-out heavy signature gathering time for a record number of citizen initiatives — 78 filed so far, a number that easily surpasses the earlier 2003 record of 60. Obviously, not all measures filed will garner enough valid names to make the July 2 cutoff. Each initiative needs 241,153 valid signatures — 300,000 to cover for invalid names. R.U. Kidding strikes again. Expect five to eight initiatives to make the November ballot.

Initiative volume ebbs and flows. This is a record year in part because of frustration with a weak-willed Legislature and rampant anxiety about an economy that makes everyone jittery. Signing a citizen's initiative is a way to lodge a protest or at least feel like you are doing something.

Consider the idea of privatizing liquor. Of two competing proposals, I suspect Initiative 1100 will make the ballot and pass, for the simple reason of convenience. This initiative asks, in essence, would you like to stop having to go to an extra store to buy a bottle of spirits. That's going to be a yes.

The initiative takes the state and its expensive employees out of a business that fell to government because of the restrictions of another era. Why should the state be in a retail business when it really needs to focus on core services?

If the paid and volunteer signature gathering is successful, Tim Eyman will be on the November ballot with his marquee proposal this year, Initiative 1053, which reinstates a two-thirds legislative majority (or a majority of voters) for raising taxes. He and some folks in the beverage industry may produce initiatives that nix recent taxes on candy, beer, pop and bottled water — taxes that tied together the state's unsustainable state budget with bailing wire and wadded-up bubble gum.

Initiative sponsors sometimes put measures on to draw friends and supporters to the ballot. The anti-tax initiatives will bring out anti-government, Republican-leaning voters. But Democrats also appear to be attempting to lure their fans.

Initiative 1068, if it garners sufficient signatures, would remove all state civil and criminal penalties for persons 18 years or older who cultivate, possess, transport, sell or use marijuana. Do potheads or marijuana enthusiasts vote in large numbers? Yes, a little slower, perhaps, but still purposefully.

Initiative 1098, the income-tax measure, is a serious proposal with serious backers and since it is sold as "Tax the rich," the measure likely will make the ballot and bring out more Democrats.

Candidates for Legislature, Congress and Senate watch these sorts of things because they provide a sense of what the November electorate will look like. All those Obama kids who voted like crazy in 2008, will they come back or are they too busy this year doing ... whatever?

A word of caution to initiative enthusiasts. Citizen democracy can go too far. It surely did in California, where it all but ruined state government by micromanaging tax-and-spending decisions to the point the state is now stuck with a multibillion-dollar budget hole and few ways to dig out.

Washington voters have sent their fair share of contradictory messages via initiatives — spend more for education but don't raise my taxes.

All the current initiative activity is a symptom of a larger problem. Voters expect leaders to act boldly and decisively in an economic crisis, and when elected representatives fail to deliver, citizens strike back with their own powerful messages to fill the void.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com

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