“Let the voters decide.”
While we hear that slogan often – especially in a presidential election year – the truth is that at the local level, Washington voters rarely get to cast a ballot in their own communities on critical issues.
That’s because our authority to place issues directly on the ballot – through the citizens’ initiative – has been under siege by business interests affected by its use and by courts friendly to those interests.
In February, the Washington Supreme Court continued that trend, removing a citizens’ initiative from the Spokane ballot that sought to protect community, environmental and worker rights. In its ruling, the court declared that the people’s local initiative power isn’t really a right at all, but merely a privilege granted by state government to our communities.
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Worse yet, the court recognized that almost anyone can sue to keep any initiative from reaching a vote of the people and that initiatives would be removed from the ballot if they infringed on any aspect of state power.
More than a century ago, the people of Washington enacted the citizens’ initiative process to secure our rights to directly make law. With its recent ruling, the state Supreme Court effectively eliminated our authority to do so.
With the court’s action, going forward we should expect few, if any, local citizens’ initiatives – in Spokane or other communities across Washington – to be placed on the ballot for a vote. This includes in Tacoma, where opponents of the proposed methanol plant are seeking to place an initiative on the ballot to give residents the authority to decide whether to grant permits to large water users, such as the methanol plant, that seek to use more than one million gallons a day.
Recent news coverage has questioned whether the Supreme Court’s ruling would give proponents of the methanol plant the ability to successfully block such an initiative from being voted on by residents of Tacoma. So much for letting “we the people” decide.
State governmental power exercised in this manner, of course, is nothing new. State governments guard their powers jealously, even to the point of forcibly preventing local communities from protecting their own people, workers and the natural environment.
The Spokane City Council’s recent adoption of a mandatory sick leave law affords one such example. State Sen. Michael Baumgartner, who represents Spokane, recently introduced a bill to eliminate the authority of any city in Washington to adopt similar legislation.
Our state Legislature is not unique in seeking to preempt local governing authority, even when that authority is exercised to protect people’s rights to their own health and safety. Across the country, state governments have now eliminated the power of communities to ban hydro-fracking for natural gas, genetically modified crops, corporate water bottling operations, pipelines and other practices.
It’s precisely when we watch our elected officials restricting our democratic rights that the people need the initiative power more than ever.
Disagreement over values shouldn’t be permitted to stifle free speech. Nor should the courts pick sides by putting the power of the state behind the restraint of petitioning and speech before the people’s proposals see the light of the ballot. The Washington Supreme Court’s recent decision establishes the people themselves as second-class citizens; after all, if the same standard were applied to legislators, it would open them up to lawsuits over bills still in committee, even before the Legislature formally adopted them.
It’s time to push back against the power of the state to tell communities what they can and cannot do. It’s time to recognize a right of communities to expand rights at the local level and to insulate the exercise of that right from the power of state governments to override it.
The Washington Constitution declares that “all 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.”
Someone should remind the Washington Supreme Court of those provisions. Otherwise, just like “let the voters decide,” those words aren’t worth the paper that they’re printed on.
Mari Margil is the associate director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. She lives in Spokane.