It’s a big year for political populism, at the national level at least. The fascinating part is not that the biggest populist wave is being led by a billionaire real estate developer — after all, the last significant populist movement in a presidential election was led by Ross Perot, who was hardly in financial distress. More fascinating is watching every other candidate avow that they too are outsider, establishment-challenging, just-folks men (or women) of the people.
In Washington, meanwhile, it’s a typical year for political populism, but not with the political candidates themselves. Because of the state’s initiative-and-referendum process, and the enthusiastic use of it by the citizenry, some big-ticket items are likely to be on the fall ballot, potentially crowding out the attention given to many of the races for federal, state and local office.
The Legislature, you may have heard, is back in Olympia, but expectations are low for anything significant to come out of it, as opposed to last year when a highway-project bill passed and the state budget cut tuition at public colleges and universities.
It is a nonbudget year (other than some midbiennium adjustments), and an election year, so everyone would just as soon not get bogged down on some contentious issue (or, worse, get pushed into a vote that could come back to bite them in a campaign).
Two issues that will be on the agenda are initiatives to the Legislature, one on a carbon tax, the other more of an advocacy measure on corporate spending on political campaigns.
A quick civics review on state initiatives: Get enough petition signatures (at least 246,372 registered voters) and you can put your issue before the Legislature, which then has the option of passing it, passing an alternative (in which case, just to add to the complexity, both measures go to the ballot) or rejecting or not acting on the proposal, sending it on to a vote by the people.
The one that is of biggest concern to business is Initiative 732, which calls for a carbon emission tax “on the sale or use of certain fossil fuels and fossil-fuel-generated electricity, at $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide in 2017, and increasing gradually to $100 per metric ton (2016 dollars adjusted for inflation).” That’s accompanied by a 1 percentage-point reduction in the state sales tax over two years. The proposal would also “increase a low-income sales tax exemption, and reduce certain manufacturing taxes.”
The governor, having seen his own carbon-tax proposal go nowhere last year, is moving in the same direction with proposed Ecology Department regs; a look at the list of target businesses indicates that they’ll fall most heavily on manufacturers and natural-gas-fired power plants. Expect a grueling fight over that one.
Initiative 735 (the Secretary of State’s Office has provisionally certified both, pending completion of signature verification) is a reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. It would, according to a summary, “urge the Washington state congressional delegation to propose a federal constitutional amendment clarifying that constitutional rights belong only to individuals, not corporations; that spending money is not free speech under the First Amendment; that governments are fully empowered to regulate political contributions and expenditures to prevent undue influence; and that political contributions and expenditures must be promptly disclosed to the public. The measure would urge the Legislature to ratify such an amendment.”
It’s a contentious issue on the national level, but given that it’s a merely a request for action, members of the delegation are free to ignore it. So much else is going on at the state level, this one isn’t going to get a lot of discussion.
Back to our civics lesson: Another type of initiative is to the people directly. Initiative sponsors are filing their proposals now, and there are a lot of them, not surprising since filing costs all of $5. Tim Eyman has submitted a slew of tax-related proposals (his strategy typically is to winnow the ideas down to one or two that he takes to the signature-gathering stage). Marijuana also is a popular topic this year for initiatives to the people.
A potentially huge issue, if sponsors get the requisite number of signatures (also 246,372) by July 2, is a big hike in the state minimum wage, currently at $9.47. One proposal calls for increases to $14 by 2020, and requiring employers to provide employees with paid sick leave. That will bring to a statewide level a debate already heard in Tacoma and Seattle over the effect on small businesses and entry-level positions for young workers, and introduce an added element as to whether the same minimum wage should apply in King County as in rural or less expensive locales.
That will make for a crowded ballot and lots of competition for voters’ attention, without even getting into the races for governor, U.S. senator, all of the state’s representatives to the U.S. House and all the legislative positions up this year. Counties, cities and other entities can be expected to add their own issue and tax measures — such as Sound Transit, which plans to get something on the ballot this November.
Except if that Trump guy winds up as the Republican nominee. That might grab a little bit of election-season attention too.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at email@example.com.