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No initiative is a good initiative

Published on February 4, 2011 3:01AM

Last changed on March 4, 2011 9:39AM


The advent of another anti-animal agriculture initiative brings to the forefront the double-pronged question of whether initiatives should dictate how farmers treat animals that are already healthy, and whether initiatives themselves are suitable ways of passing laws or amending state constitutions.

As practiced in Washington state, the site of the latest bullying tactic against animal agriculture and egg producers, the initiative process is a proven disaster.

In California, whose voters passed a similar egg proposition in 2008, and in Oregon, the initiative process has been used -- and abused -- for all sorts of mischief.

With Proposition 13 in 1978, California voters put that state on a course for financial ruin, a destination it approaches faster every day. By arbitrarily restricting property tax assessment increases to 2 percent even as market values gyrate wildly, well-meaning supporters managed to strip the spine out of even the most fiscally responsible local governments and force the state to pick up the tab.

Supporters say Proposition 13 has created stability for property taxes and California's state government. It should be noted that "bankrupt" qualifies as stable. Oops.

With measures 5 and 50, Oregon voters followed a similar path. They locked in property values and the tax rate and guaranteed that property assessments would increase 3 percent a year no matter what market values did. Oregonians in 2010 were no doubt surprised to find the assessment on their property was up 3 percent even as market values fell by double-digit percentages. Oops, again.

In Washington state and Oregon, voters have damaged the economy. They passed initiatives that require minimum wages to track the rate of inflation -- unless it goes down. At that point, the minimum wages either stay the same or increase some more.

It doesn't matter if businesses -- including farms -- are struggling, the minimum wages will march forever skyward. It should be noted that, in addition to having the highest minimum wages, Washington and Oregon have two of the highest unemployment rates. Oops, again and again.

In these examples, the goals were worthy of public debate, yet the flaws inherent in the initiative process provided an array of unintended consequences that have hurt more than they helped.

The proper forum for writing legislation in a representative democracy is the legislature. There, proposals are debated, vetted and challenged. Once a bill makes it through both houses of the legislature and is signed into law by the governor, it is much better than the original, "raw" version.

Initiatives have not gone through that process and, as such, are replete with problems, mistakes and unintended consequences. Therein lies the problem.

California's Proposition 2, which addressed chicken cages, will ultimately increase the cost of eggs in that state. Low-income families will see the same price increases as the richest families. It can be assumed that sponsors of the initiative didn't intend for that to happen, but even if they did, the public was denied a legislative forum to discuss, debate and, ultimately, improve or reject a concept that by itself is deeply flawed.

Now Washington voters will likely be confronted by a similar initiative. You can agree with it or not, but the flawed concept is guaranteed to have unintended consequences, including higher prices for eggs.

The ease with which initiatives can be placed on the ballot is to blame. It opens the door to well-heeled organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States and Farm Sanctuary, which can buy legislation by circulating petitions and then filling the airways with campaign advertising based on sound bites and fuzzy videos.

The initiative process in these three states is abused. In some election years, voters face piles of initiatives that may sound good -- "reduce your taxes," "help the working poor" or "be kind to chickens" -- but the results are fraught with consequences even supporters may not have considered.

Our government is based on representatives who we, the people, have elected. They have their successes and failures, but it is our most American institution.

The initiative process short-circuits that institution and unfairly and irresponsibly saddles citizens with half-baked ideas that needed to be vetted first.

In that sense, no initiative is a good initiative.


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