Subversion of the People’s Initiative Process

Every initiative, referendum, and “advisory vote” on last fall’s November 5 General Election ballot win the City of Spokane was traceable to Republican operatives. On a state level Tim Eyman put forward I-976 (his latest car tab, anti-tax effort), while City of Spokane Props 1 & 2 originated with the few uber-wealthy conservatives who formed “Better Spokane” to provide cover and a tax write-off for their efforts. As a reminder Prop 2 read, “Shall the Spokane City Charter be amended to prohibit the City of Spokane from imposing an income tax on wages, salaries, investments, the sale of goods or services, or any other income source?” (It passed with 72% of the vote.)

That is a startling realization. Weren’t initiatives and referenda enshrined in our Washington State Constitution and the Spokane City Charter as a check “By the People” on the actions (or inactions) of our elected representatives? Is Tim Eyman, with his clever anti-tax, anti-government framing and his PAC name and motto, “Permanent Offense,” representing “the People” or is he subverting the will of a distracted populace for the benefit of a few? Whose money are Fritz and Alvin Wolff, Michael Cathcart, and company, the basis of “Better Spokane” protecting with their Charter Amendment to preemptively block any form of City income tax?

It takes money and effort to launch an initiative, referendum, or proposition. There are signature gathering requirements, rules and regulations about wording, and, at least at the state level, seemingly inevitable court challenges from those opposed. It is a daunting task most of us never consider, a task in which a team player with monetary backing has a substantial advantage. Eyman (statewide) and Cathcart (City of Spokane) are great examples.

What did it take to get Proposition 2 on the City of Spokane ballot? First, an idea, of course. What better use of the distaste for taxes and government the Republican Party and its think tanks have been nurturing for decades, than to put forward a measure to insure that the wealthiest among us would never face a city income tax, even on their highest marginal incomes? Perfect. Never mind that no current politician would propose such a tax. If nothing else, putting a “no income tax” measure on the ballot might encourage certain folks to vote who might not otherwise and, if passed (as it did), it sends a nice message: the wealthy in Spokane have the electorate so well deceived you can come here and join us with no worries. Prop 2 was pre-emptive taxation protection for the wealthiest among us. Even better to make the prohibition a “charter amendment,” the city equivalent to amending the Constitution (but much easier). It is actually the same process as any initiative, but a “charter amendment” sounds more impressive.

Second, it takes signature gathering, a significant hurdle. How many? The Smart Reforms for a Better Spokane website tells us. (As does the City Charter.) For last fall’s municipal election the number was only 2226, 5% of all votes cast in the most recent Spokane General Municipal election (2017). That is a remarkably small number, especially compared to the task of qualifying a statewide initiative. For last fall’s election a statewide initiative needed 259,622 signatures to get on the ballot, 8% of the votes cast in the last election for Washington governor. [You can read about all the twists and turns of Washington statewide initiatives here.]

Third, it takes considerable effort and knowhow to get the initiative properly written and advertised. Note, however, that with a Spokane City initiative no Pro and Con needs to appear in the voters’ pamphlet like it does for a statewide initiative. Better Spokane, a non-profit run by a few wealthy locals consists of a website (where Prop 2 is posed as “Taxpayer Protection”) and a Facebook page, a Board consisting of the contributors, and one employee, Michael Cathcart. Most of the magic to get a citywide initiative passed is in the framing of the question–and not proposing anything that provokes well-funded opposition. [The most recent example of a citywide ballot measure that provoked a desperate and well-funded corporate blowback was the oil stabilization initiative, Prop 2 of the 2017 municipal elections. Burlington Northern, seeing a threat to their bottom line with towns all across the country passing such ordinances, pulled out all the stops in opposition advertising.]

We should watch for more Michael Cathcart initiatives with similar political purpose, perhaps even this year, 2020. A BETTER SPOKANE (Sponsored by: The Standard Trust), 2020 registered as a “Continuing Political Action Committee” with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission last May. As of this week it reported no contributions or expenditures, but the groundwork is laid for more cleverly framed initiatives backed not “By the People” in the broad sense, but by the money of the wealthy Republican business operatives on the Better Spokane Board. [One might laugh at their claim of bi-partisanship.] For orientation, City of Spokane Props 1 and 2 in 2019 were pushed by Better Spokane under an “Initiative Committee (Local)” called SMART REFORMS FOR A BETTER SPOKANE, 2019. That Committee had just fifteen contributors, with Fritz Wolff of The Wolff Co. contributing more than a third (25K) of the total (69K). Another 35K of that 69 came, obscurely, from “The Standard Trust” and “Better Spokane PAC,” the better to muddle the origins of the money.

Bottom lines: 1) Keep Michael Cathcart (recently elected to the City of Spokane City Council) and his network of wealthy Republican backers at Better Spokane on your radar. 2) Never assume a political process like an Initiative can’t be hijacked by people with self interest and gobs of money.

Tim Eyman is the Washington Statewide version of the same process, but, as a recently declared candidate for WA State governor, he deserves a separate post.

Keep to the high ground,