Tuesday’s election was a big one for Washington state. Voters extended its 32-year streak of not electing a Republican governor, but whatever: The real action came from citizens’ initiatives, as we became the first and only state to simultaneously legalize same-sex marriage and recreational marijuana. Which led led The Stranger‘s Eli Sanders to tell anyone who’d listen that Washington is “not only the most progressive in the nation, but even more so than Canada and Amsterdam.” (The Stranger itself deployed its usual sense of nuance in its analysis of the result, as shown above.)
This is the sort of logic that only works if you only care about social issues. And it papers over the fundamental problems the state is still having thanks to the initiative process, which remains one of the worst ideas the progressive movement ever had.
Sanders, while delivering some totally clear-eyed advice to our new governor-elect, declares that Inslee should admit he was wrong to oppose marijuana legalization, given that the initiative passed with 55 percent of the vote and a majority of independents. This would be a perfectly forgettable bit of triumphalism if Sanders hadn’t spent the whole previous paragraph arguing that Inslee should also renounce his opposition to raising taxes — without ever mentioning that 64 percent of Washington’s voters backed another initiative that makes tax hikes virtually impossible.
Initiative 1185, which prohibits the legislature from raising taxes without a two-thirds majority and makes it harder for the state to impose new fees as well, got virtually no attention even after it passed. That’s mainly because there was no real question that it was going to pass, and that‘s because the voters here have been approving similar initiatives, by huge margins, for 18 years now. So even if Inslee did reverse his position on taxes tomorrow, he’d need to get two-thirds of the legislature (including at least 15 Republicans) to support him, and then hope nobody thought to challenge the law with a referendum.
This helps to explain why Washington has the most regressive tax code of any state in the country, and why the Democrats who control virtually the entire state government have been slashing their own budget priorities and will probably continue to do so. Just two years ago, and not for the first time, voters soundly rejected an income tax that would have applied to earnings greater than $200,000 a year. This is not what they do in Amsterdam.
It’s true that Washington’s voters did approve a progressive income tax back in 1933, only to have it thrown out by the state Supreme Court. (Washington’s judges are elected, incidentally, which is yet another crazy idea.) But they’ve clearly changed their mind since then. However liberal the state is on social policy, it’s very much in touch with the nation’s most conservative instincts on fiscal matters.
And it’s worth remembering that the Washington state legislature actually voted to legalize same-sex marriage nine months ago; Referendum 74, which passed on Tuesday, was an attempt by opponents to block it. In a world without R-74, gay marriage would have been legal here since June, and the issue probably wouldn’t have come up at all if the Legislature hadn’t acted back in February.
Now, marijuana clearly wouldn’t have been legalized without the ballot initiative, and if you’re the sort of progressive who likes charter schools then this was probably a good week for you, too. But the real problem with the initiative process isn’t that it gets in the way of liberal or conservative goals: The problem is that it destroys the lines of accountability between policymakers and their policies.
Washington’s liberals might have felt comfortable voting for Rob McKenna despite his position on, say, gay marriage because the issue was clearly out of the state government’s hands: If R-74 passed, then gay marriage would be legal; if it failed, then clearly having allies in the legislature wouldn’t matter anyway. Conversely, voters can tell the state to spend $3 million to set up a bunch of charter schools, refuse to provide the state any new revenue to pay for it, and then complain when our legislators can’t make money appear by magic.
One final point: Whatever else you can say about the referendum on gay marriage, at least it’s a straightforward issue that everyone can understand. On the other hand, when you tell the government how it can and can’t raise revenue, or what its education policy should look like, or even when you’re inventing a new legal and regulatory regime for a drug that’s still illegal under federal law, that involves a ton of second- and third-order consequences that even a reasonably well-informed voter can’t possibly anticipate. Government is about choices that get a lot more complicated than “yes” or “no,” and those sort of questions don’t translate very well into one paragraph on a ballot.
Washington state has internalized the thinking that our government can’t be trusted to make policy without constant backseat driving by the electorate, on the idea that a snap poll of the general public is better at determining state policy than the professionals we elect to deal with this stuff all day. That approach has a long and storied history in American progressivism, but that doesn’t make it a good one.