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Initiatives -- In general, our first response to all initiatives is to vote no. We have a Legislature to settle these matters, with sensitivity to the needs of all the state's citizens, institutions and businesses. As recent history has shown, many of these new laws lead to painful unintended consequences. Or they just reward one particular interest group -- a group that can afford an army of paid signature gatherers.
But there are times when the system does not allow a good idea to see the light of day, and that's when the initiative process is entirely appropriate, as is the case with the first initiative on this year's ballot, I-297, which is the only one we are recommending this year.
INITIATIVE 297 YES, Handling of HAZARDOUS WASTE -- This initiative truly represents mainstream thinking in Washington state. Essentially, this is all about sticking up for ourselves. Hanford is being eyed by all kinds of people as a great place to dump (some call it "storing") the nation's hazardous waste. And there's a lot of this stuff looking for a home. Meanwhile, the federal government is doing its best to wriggle out of the cleanup plan it previously agreed to for Hanford. All I-297 says is that nobody will import new hazardous waste into Washington without first cleaning up the mess left over from the past 50 years. And there is no disputing that mess was created as a federal program, therefore making it a federal responsibility.
This nasty waste has to go somewhere, so is it fair for any state to close its doors to the nation's problem? It's a fair question, and you could say that it would be selfish not to do our part to be a part of the solution. That's a noble view, but the fact is more and more states are passing similar legislation -- especially those states that have suffered under the burden of the nation's experiments with nuclear energy. New Mexico has passed a similar ban, and all of Nevada is up in arms about federal plans to store hazardous waste at Yucca Mountain. Those states, like Washington, were the sites of nuclear tests that left what many believe to be a trail of horrendous scars on public health.
I-297 does not preclude the storage of hazardous waste in this state forever; it just forces the federal government to live up to its commitments first. Maybe more new laws likes this one will get lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to take the issue of cleaning up Hanford more seriously. Along with protecting this state's environment and public health, that would be a good result of the passage of this initiative.
INITIATIVE 872 NO, Changing the Primary ELECTION System -- Our old primary election system was illegal. Nobody wants to believe it, but that's the case. Now, after just one election under the new closed primary system, voters are being asked to start all over again. The closed primary worked just fine in September; it did not suppress turnout and voters managed to cast their ballots successfully.
Backers of I-872 want us to switch to a system in which the top two vote-getters in the primary advance to the general election. The only other state to use such a system is Louisiana, and their secretary of state has wondered aloud why anyone would want to adopt it. The top-two plan will certainly lead to state races in which two Republicans advance to the general (as in sparsely populated, diehard Republican parts of Eastern Washington) and in which two Democrats advance (as in densely populated, diehard Democratic parts of Seattle). In this way, voters will get less choice from this proposed system.
Even worse, such a system would destroy the chances of third-party candidates, including representatives of the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, the Reform Party and even straight-ahead independents. We live in a two-party system today, but new parties and the new ways of thinking they bring are healthy for the marketplace of ideas that powers our state and nation. I-872 would stifle the mavericks among us and only deepen the hold the mainstream parties have over political discourse.
INITIATIVE 884 NO, Dedicating New Funds for EDUCATION -- Education funding is a major concern, especially as state colleges and universities are increasingly left to fend for themselves. This has translated into higher tuition for state residents and fewer openings for qualified students. We're expecting a bumper crop of high school grads in the coming years, making this a major issue facing Olympia. While the benefits of education may seem abstract to many voters, it really is the key to economic development and the state's quality of life. Well-educated people make smarter communities, and smarter communities solve their problems and create more opportunities for themselves. Less educated communities fail to thrive.
So more money in the education pipeline would help -- but this proposal is the wrong way to do it. The state is working hard to maintain its profile as a great place to live and do business, but adding more to the sales tax -- another 1 percent -- would be a setback to those efforts. Not only does the sales tax regressively hit lower-income people harder, but it also continues to add to the stories other states tell to gain advantage in the fight for economic development. Washington does not need to be known as the state with the highest sales tax in the nation.
Furthermore, if a hefty tax of this size is to be levied, it should be done by the legislature. This would be a major new source of revenue (perhaps $1 billion a year), and rather than having it allocated by the elected representatives of the citizens, it would be spent by a committee of people appointed by the governor. Some of the proposed allocations appear to be on target, but others (for example, to guarantee pay raises) may not be the way elected officials would choose to spend this money. The impulse behind I-884 is appropriate, and the education situation in this state is getting desperate. But we're not this desperate.
INITIATIVE 892 NO, Authorizing New GAMBLING Machines -- Is he serious? Apparently so. Tim Eyman, the man who has made a lucrative career out of initiative peddling, offers this one up as the solution to the mess he has made out of the state's financial picture with earlier initiatives like I-695. You remember; that's the one that allows the guy with the Hummer or the Escalade to pay only $30 for his car tabs. Eyman's betting that more gambling is the state's solution to all the funding shortfalls he has left in his wake.
Gambling in certain places, like tribal casinos and at a few state-sanctioned casinos around town, is entertainment and can generally be enjoyed responsibly. Gaming machines in every convenience store and tavern, however, are an invitation to the most vulnerable among us to abuse gambling. Put this expansion of gambling right up next to our many pawnshops, check-cashing outlets and rent-to-own stores, and I-892 would be handing a windfall over to those businesses that thrive on poverty.
Eyman is like the plumber you hire to fix a leak -- and he winds up flooding your basement. He's famous for offering "fixes" that have created huge messes we still have not cleaned up. I-892 is just more of the same from him.
REFERENDUM 55 NO, Allowing the creation of CHARTER PUBLIC SCHOOLS -- In a perfect world, every school might be a charter school. But this is no perfect world, and education is among those state and local functions that faces serious challenges. Charter schools do not offer a better education for all students; they only dilute the funding for schools that are struggling to keep up with their responsibilities. Under better financial circumstances, leaving the majority of kids behind in the name of innovation might be acceptable, but these are tough times. For now at least, school districts need to stay focused on the schools already in operation.
City of Spokane Prop. 1 YES, Street Repair and Improvement Bonds -- In case you didn't notice, Spokane's day of reckoning is here. This request to issue bonds to cover $117 million in road improvements comes at the same time as deep cuts in city services -- from libraries to the Fire Department to parks -- are being considered. When your city is asking to borrow money to fix the roads while also telling you it is closing your local library, there isn't much subtlety: Your city is broke.
To his credit, Mayor Jim West is not sugarcoating this news. Avoiding reality is part of the reason the city is in this mess. Still, it's hard to know whether people can swallow this big of a pill with so much bad news coming out of City Hall. Finally, it seems, two decades worth of bad decisions (on things like the Lincoln Street Bridge, River Park Square and failing to annex urban areas) have caught up with us. West gets the unhappy chore of dealing with it all.
Like many citizens, we have been waiting for more help on this problem from the state or some clever new funding strategy, like a street utility. Unfortunately, this nation has entered a kind of every-municipality-for-herself era. We can't even get enough flu vaccine together, so do you really think somebody else is going to care about our streets? It's a sad commentary on what should be the planet's most prosperous society, but dwelling on that won't fix the streets either.
No, the conclusion has arrived like a punch in the gut. They're our streets, and we have to fix them. That means taxing the city's property owners to do it -- to the tune of $68 per $100,000 of valuation per year for 10 years. Ouch. The good news is this proposal is not another patch-the-leaks kind of plan; this will pay for massive road reconstruction, using the best practices, on both arterials and residential streets. The last time the city took such bold action on the streets was 20 years ago. Another important innovation is the establishment of a citizens' committee to oversee the expenditures. This should answer those critics who think things could be done better, as they can either join the committee or pester them at their open meetings.
The state of our roads is simply unacceptable. If Spokane aspires to be a vibrant, up-and-coming city, it must take care of its most basic needs. Commerce doesn't work without transportation. And the truth is that without action soon, many roads will slip into the category of being beyond repair. We are digging ourselves into a deeper and deeper pothole.
In the struggle for economic development that will continue to determine Spokane's future, the roads will be a factor. Seeing crews laying down new asphalt -- or cement, in some cases -- would be a sign that we believe in the future here. Yes, things will get a bit more expensive, as property owners will spread out the cost where they can, but that's unavoidable. This is not a happy decision to have to make, but if you think of it as a down payment on a brighter future for this city, maybe it will take some of the edge off.
Chris Gregoire, Washington State Governor -- On the surface, this is a tough call. Dino Rossi connects with Washingtonians as a different kind of Republican, and his message on the state's business climate makes sense. Yes, we could use a better state economy -- what state couldn't? And Chris Gregoire may be the weakest of the three Democrats to have run for this office. Phil Talmadge, who quit the race over health issues, had the big picture in mind better than anyone. And Ron Sims had the experience and courage to take the job beyond the kind of competent-but-unspectacular leadership we've had these past eight years.
When you get beneath the surface, however, Rossi's candidacy isn't quite as compelling as it appears on TV. His big issue is how bad the state's business environment is, yet facts suggest that Washington is, indeed, faring better in these tough economic times than most states. After a big spike in unemployment, Washington's rate has come back down, recently hitting its lowest point in three years. In the past eight years, 280,000 new jobs have been created in Washington. Although the much-maligned workers' compensation insurance program had a big jump two years ago, it went 10 years without a rate increase. There are 30 states with a higher tax burden on citizens than Washington's, and we are among the best states for insuring children. None of this is to say that there are not major problems here, but is it, as Rossi proposes, really time to start hacking away at rules and regulations that have made this one of the best places to live in the world?
Rossi is not the candidate he has advertised himself to be. He wants voters to reject Gregoire for being an "Olympia insider," but he was a state senator for seven years. He has a troubling track record on environmental policy and growth management. And despite carefully positioning himself as more palatable to moderates than Ellen Craswell and John Carlson, the two previous GOP candidates for governor, he may well be to the right of them both. In 1991, he fought Initiative 120, the measure that made Roe v. Wade state law. And in 1992, he was quoted saying he supported the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in public schools. He hasn't disowned that statement, but then, for obvious reasons, we haven't heard him talk much about social issues in this campaign.
Gregoire is the clear choice. She has been a fearless advocate for the state's rights, especially on the environment. And having defended all the state's agencies and elected officials, she has a wide understanding of the state's many functions. To counter Rossi's one-note campaign of regulatory reform, Gregoire is offering up some sound solutions on health care, economic development and education. It's true that whoever becomes governor will be severely hindered by the budget outlook, but at least she has a plan rather than just a critique. Most significant for Spokane is her pledge to redirect $500 million of the tobacco settlement money to biotech research. That's an initiative that dovetails nicely with Spokane's hopes for more health care research at the Riverpoint Campus.
With Rossi, it's hard to tell what we'd be getting: the new, improved Rossi, or the old, reliable right-winger? With Gregoire, we know what we're getting: a better chance at progress in this state.
Lisa Brown, Washington State Senator, District 3 -- Spokane is always in the position of needing all the help it can get, and Lisa Brown's seniority in the state Senate provides a boost for the city and the region. If Democrats retake control of the Senate, Brown could become Majority Leader, a job once held by Jim West. But it's not all about advocating for our fair share of the state pie; Brown is also among the most ardent proponents of seeking solutions, where appropriate, to problems associated with poverty. For her understanding of all the issues facing the citizens of the 3rd District, Brown is the right choice.
Laurie Dolan, Washington State Senator, District 6 -- To fill the seat vacated by Jim West, the candidate who almost beat him two years ago is the best. Laurie Dolan has been impressive in her persistence in seeking to jump from education to public service. She has steeped herself in the issues and reached out to the community, acting almost as if she was already in office. Her crash course in local issues has paid off, and when you match that with her long career in education, she is ready to represent the 6th District. And Dolan's background as a teacher and school administrator will be an asset to all of Olympia, as education is one of the most crucial issues facing the state.
Spokane County Prop. 1 Yes, Creation of Aquifer Protection Area -- This $1.25 charge on your water bill each year will go into a pool that will be used to create more protections for the region's drinking water supply. This is a small price to pay to secure what is perhaps the region's most important resource. The funds will be used to plan, monitor and enforce compliance with the kinds of practices that will protect the aquifer.
Todd Mielke, Spokane County Commissioner Pos. 1 -- Early in his career, Todd Mielke made some controversial choices -- including leaving the state Legislature abruptly to take a better-paying job as a lobbyist. Some believe the fact that he served the likes of tobacco companies precludes him from ever representing the public. It's a cause for concern, but Mielke understands that as a county commissioner he will be representing people, not corporations. He will serve on the regional health board, for example, and he may be faced with making choices between old clients and his new bosses, the citizens. If he doesn't make the right choices, what appears to be a bright political career will end quickly. But the upside Mielke offers outweighs the concern over his past clients. His varied background gives him a wider view on the future, especially in the region's need to get in the economic development game. Mielke has the kind of energy and creative approach we need more of in our local leaders.
Linda Wolverton, his opponent, is a very steady public servant, and the bonus is that she will stay on as County Treasurer after the election, applying her expertise on financial matters to the county's benefit.
Bill Burke, Spokane County Commissioner Pos. 2 -- If paying your dues counts for anything, Bill Burke will win a seat on the board of commissioners. A longtime Spokane booster, Burke has served on a variety of local boards -- he's also the brains behind Pig Out in the Park. Like Mielke, Burke seems particularly poised to be a great advocate for the possibilities of the region.
Just as important, however, is the fact that a vote for Burke is also a vote for balance. The past eight years have shown that balance is the most important factor in creating a successful county government. With Kate McCaslin, John Roskelley and Phil Harris, we had three very different people, and those dynamics required that any two would have to come together from time to time on a given issue. That board's success was a direct result of their mutual need to engage one another and come to agreements -- even compromise.
Three commissioners with Harris's point of view would be a set of greased skids on too many issues. Right now, Burke will go the farthest toward balancing out the group, especially on land-use decisions, which are always the hottest topics for the county.
Mark Richard, Burke's opponent, actually works for the Spokane Homebuilders Association. It's a fine organization, but it has developed a strong point of view on land use issues over the years. Richard and Harris would likely vote together on such issues; Burke will not fall so easily into predictable voting patterns. Burke's boundless optimism is a nice quality for a leader, but it's the dynamic that he will create on the board that will be even more important to the county's continued success. n
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 2.
Publication date: 10/28/04