A troubling theme has emerged this past legislative session that should concern all Washingtonians regardless of political affiliation. The majority party in the state House has continually voted against the will and voice of the people. Late into the night on Good Friday, House Democrats overturned two voter initiatives by installing new burdensome and costly ergonomics rules, as well as repealing advisory votes on your ballot.
Washington state is unique in that the state constitution allows the people to share their opinion through the initiative and referendum process. Only half of the states allow for some sort of public process that gives power to the people to directly guide public policy.
Article 2, Section 1 of the Washington State Constitution states: “The legislative authority of the State of Washington shall be vested in the Legislature … but the people reserve to themselves the power to propose bills, laws and to enact or reject the same at polls, independent of the legislature … the first power reserved by the people is initiative.”
A ballot initiative is a citizen-initiated ballot measure. With about 325,000 signatures, Washingtonians can have an initiative placed on the ballot for a vote to direct public policy through statute. This is called a direct initiative. Some states have an indirect process in which legislatures have the option to approve proposals outright. Although Washington does not have an indirect process, advisory votes (passed by initiative in 2008) provide voter opinions on tax increases passed by the Legislature.
In 2003, Washington voters approved Initiative 841, which repealed ergonomics regulations put in place three years earlier and barred the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries from regulating working practices to address musculoskeletal injuries. The result 20 years later, according to the Department of Labor and Industries, is that musculoskeletal injuries are trending downward, likely as a result of the department’s initiatives and programs to work with businesses and industries to develop best practices and policies to reduce injuries.
Despite the people’s voice in the initiative and despite the rate of musculoskeletal injuries declining, the majority party in the Legislature voted to pass Senate Bill 5217 to allow for regulations to be reimposed.
In 2007, voters approved Initiative 960, which placed tax increases on the ballot to allow voters the opportunity to learn about an increase, consider the impact, and send a non-binding message back to the Legislature of “maintain” or “repeal.” Opponents argued advisory votes should be at the bottom of the ballot, that advisory votes written by the state attorney general were confusing and that advisory votes were not binding. Proponents of keeping tax transparency on the ballot proposed solutions for the criticisms, but all amendments were rejected.
Despite the people’s voice in the initiative, and with continued voter criticism of reckless spending by state government, the Legislature voted to repeal advisory votes with Senate Bill 5082.
Although disappointing, it is no surprise to see a political party that has controlled both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office for decades no longer fear voters. Balance is lost, and accountability has become an afterthought.
In 2019, a very unpopular long-term care payroll tax program was passed by the Legislature and nearly 63% of Washingtonians came back that year and “rejected” it. Again, the Legislature did not listen to the people and continues to ignore their wishes, resulting in over 480,000 workers opting out of the program with more wishing they had more time to escape.
Our state is only two years removed from the passage of a capital gains income tax with the passage of Senate Bill 5096 in 2021. Whether one likes the idea, or not, whether one believes it is constitutional, or not, Washington voters have rejected income taxes 10 times, including six constitutional amendments. We already see the Legislature proposing an expansion of the income tax.
Serving your community as an elected official certainly takes independence and consideration of all sides of an issue. I think about my own experiences and the stories of my friends, families and neighbors when developing policy positions. It is important to stay true to your values and the values, history, and traditions of the community you serve.
It’s even more important to respect the constitutional process and balance of government. I don’t think it was an accident that Article 1, Section 1 of our Washington State Constitution starts with “All political power is inherent in the people, and governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and are established to protect and maintain individual rights.”
Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, represents the 20th Legislative District.