The Gristle

Taking the initiative
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TAKING THE INITIATIVE: Washington voters appear to support all four of the major initiatives on the state ballot this year, some strongly, according to a KING 5 News poll released last week. Two potentially worsen near-term prospects for funding public education. The other two would set Washington at the forefront of evolving national opinion on matters of social justice, potentially triggering a federal response.

Tentative support was registered for the charter school initiative (I-1240), with just 49 percent saying they support it compared with 30 percent against it. Nearly one likely voter in five said they were undecided. The initiative would authorize the creation of up to 40 charter schools across the state, each competing with and for public school dollars.

Voters more strongly support Tim Eyman’s perennial tax limit (I-1185), which would strengthen law that requires supermajority votes in the Legislature to enact any tax increases, and impose majority votes for any fee increases. The measure is supported by 56 percent of surveyed voters, with 26 percent opposed.

The Washington State Supreme Court heard arguments last month that such supermajority restrictions may, in fact, require a change to the state’s constitution. Attorneys on behalf of public schools and educators argued that the state’s governing document requires only a simple majority of the legislature to pass a bill, including budget authorizations. The state Attorney General argued that a ruling would be premature and that the plaintiffs cannot show legal harm from voter-imposed restrictions.

Indeed, court justices spent most of their time considering the justiciability of the complaint, whether the matter is “ripe” for the courts, given the legislature itself has made no attempt to overturn voter restrictions. Informing their deliberations, however, is the unanimous ruling by the same court in January that the state was not meeting its constitutional requirement to appropriately fund public education. Justices issued a stern warning to the legislature to solve the revenue issue for state schools, in effect triggering last month’s complaint from educators.

While it is unlikely the court will rule before the election, their decision could potentially nullify Eyman’s initiative 1185.

More than half of recent poll respondents—55 percent—also said they support R-74, the referendum to affirm the same-sex marriage law passed early this year by the legislature. Forty percent said they were opposed, and just 6 percent said they remain undecided. The margin of support on the issue has been steadily widening since January 2012.

In that month, Washington joined eight states, including the District of Columbia, to allow such civil partnerships. Uniquely, if R-74 passes in November, Washington would be the first in the nation to affirmatively approve marriage equality by popular referendum.

Federal law remains on the books as the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, prohibiting the federal government from recognizing such unions; and the U.S. Supreme Court may certainly soon take up the question, following recent district court rulings (affirmed by higher courts) that the State holds no interest in denying civil rights to a large portion of the population.

Supported even more strongly in the polls is the marijuana legalization initiative (I-502), backed by 57 percent of likely voters, the September poll found. Only 33 percent oppose the measure, with 10 percent saying they remain undecided. If passed in November, the measure would decriminalize marijuana possession by adults and provide a roadmap for the legal production and sale of marijuana, subject to licensing and regulation controls. The law would refocus law enforcement resources on DUI prosecution and other drug-related crime.

Marijuana remains a controlled substance under federal law, meaning approval of this law in Washington would likely trigger a stern response by federal drug control authorities. Yet—in a manner analogous to marriage equality—the nation’s drug laws are being actively resisted by states like Washington, Colorado, and Oregon, perhaps signaling a new social dynamic that might force their reconsideration at the federal level.

A news story out of Snohomish County this week only underscores the tragic failure of the nation’s drug laws, as a 22-year-old—incarcerated on a misdemeanor charge for simple possession of marijuana—died while in custody in an overcrowded jail of food-related allergies.

A report released this week found Washington has arrested more than 240,000 people on simple possession charges since 1986. In an accelerating trend, half of those arrests occurred in just the last 10 years, at a cost to taxpayers of up to $300 million.

Economics favor the latter initiatives.

A UCLA study estimated the impact of allowing same-sex couples to marry on Washington’s state budget. The study concluded that allowing same-sex couples to marry will result in a net gain of approximately $3.9 million to $5.7 million each year for the state. This net impact will result from savings in expenditures on state means-tested public benefits programs and from an increase in sales tax revenue from weddings and wedding-related tourism.

More remarkable are the economics in support of marijuana reform.

Preparing the referendum for ballot, the state Office of Financial Management indicated the measure could generate up to $530 million per in new tax resources for public investments, including health care and drug treatment. Revenues would come from increased business and occupation tax from marijuana sales, coupled with new marijuana excise taxes and fees levied on marijuana farmers, wholesalers, and retailers, essentially spawning an entirely new segment of legal business in Washington.


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