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In Defense(?) of the Initiative

Posted in Legislation, Renewable Energy

A few years ago I adopted a personal policy that I always vote “no” on any initiative.  It is satisfying, and it saves me a fair amount of time with the voters pamphlet.  I’m part of the demographic that always votes in every election – and thus gets the maximum amount of pre-election mail.  (If only I could cut that off!)  But until recently I believed that the initiative fundamentally skews the legislative process, and thus is not good for our democracy.  So, my own little protest movement was to simply vote “no” on everything.

Now I may have to rethink that.

Why am I so negative on the initiative?  Basically, because it 1) allows single-issue groups to get their single issue addressed, in a complex world where everything is connected and addressing one issue invariably affects other issues, and 2) it relieves our elected legislators of the burden of dealing with the complex competing demands that we elected them to reconcile, and allows them to escape accountability if they fail.

The initiative sprang from the Progressive Era of the early 20th Century.  Today 27 states have some form of the initiative or referendum.  Of those, 22 amended or adopted their state constitutions between 1898 (South Dakota) and 1914 (North Dakota) to give the people the right to take control of legislation from their elected legislatures. The majority of states with the initiative are in the Midwest and West.  The concern was that state legislature had become too beholden to powerful corporate interests, and the people should be able to seize back the legislative power that had been usurped by those interests.

The difficulty with the initiative is that initiatives tend to adopts laws that make for easy sound bites – capping taxes, decreasing school class size, improving education for home healthcare workers, etc.  They gain the majority of the vote because they are stated in ways that no one can say they are against.  Or, in some cases, because they are stated in ways that cause most voters to say, “who cares,” and allow a minority of voters to make the law.

But governing a state requires much more complex balancing of competing priorities than sound bites are suited to.  Legislatures must fund things they have no desire to fund, such as prisons.  Then there are the things that consume huge amounts of money that no one is “against,” indeed everyone wants to be “for,” but which account for such a large portion of the state budget that raiding the budget becomes too tempting.  Put public schools in that category.  And then there are the things we would like to do, or are required to do by federal law, such as implementing the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, etc.  Every legislator has things they would like to accomplish for their communities, most of which cost money.  And the job of the legislature is to figure out how to do as many of those things as possible, within the resources that the public is willing to put at their disposal.  As with most of life, it is impossible to make everyone happy.  Hard choices are required.  And legislators are supposed to have to explain their choices to the voters every few years, who can send someone else to the legislature if they don’t like the judgments the sitting legislator has made.

Let me use two contradictory initiatives – to both cap taxes and decrease public school class sizes, as an example.  Those are easy concepts to understand; no one is opposed to them; but when you adopt them both through initiatives, as Washington has, you take the complex, difficult task of balancing a state budget while maximizing public services and minimizing costs, and simply throw a monkey wrench into the process.  It relieves the legislators of responsibility for the fact that they cannot balance the budget – “the voters did it.”   Legislators are supposed to deal with complex issues that require thinking in complete sentences, not sound bites.  That is what we elect them to do.  When sound-bite analysis substitutes for the sort of sophisticated thinking that the task requires, we get not just a mess, but a mess for which no one is accountable.

So why am I rethinking my opposition to initiatives?

On May 1, Graham & Dunn hosted a luncheon at which State Representative Deb Eddy was the speaker, talking on the subject, “Why It’s So ^@%*!# Hard to Modernize the Grid in Washington State.”  Representative Eddy has long been one of the thought-leaders in the Washington Legislature regarding not just whether it’s a good idea to increase the use of renewable energy, but how state government could actually make a difference in accomplishing that.

She talked about a bill she had introduced in the last legislature, which would have done two seemingly modest things.  First, it would have raised the size of distributed renewable energy projects that were eligible for net metering from one hundred kilowatts (about enough to power one home) to two megawatts (the size of solar panels on a Costco store), and it would have raised the amount of a utility’s load which was eligible for net metering from 0.5% of the utility’s peak demand to 5% of the utility’s peak demand.  Arguably it would have made businesses more competitive in Washington, because they could reduce their costs of energy by selling excess energy from on-site generation back onto the grid.

The bottom line is that the bill died, with opposition from all corners.  Why?  It is not because corporate interests have seized control of the legislature, as may have motivated the original adoption of the initiative in the early 1900s.  Rather, it is because so many interests have lobbyists – the utilities, the business rate payers, the consumers, the environmentalists – and each of them speak for groups with a vested interest in the status quo.  As Representative Eddy said, “the only interest that doesn’t have a lobbyist, is the future.”

Utility regulation is not for the faint of heart.  It is an arcane body of law that has built up over the last 120-years, with layers of state and federal statutes, regulations, court decisions and regulatory decisions.  Smart people spend their entire careers becoming expert on single parts of the system.  It is thus essentially impossible for legislators to talk about utility regulation with as much knowledge as the lobbyists for the various vested interests can bring to the discussion.  And with every possible interest competing to maintain the status quo unless a change is helpful to them, any movement of any kind may be impossible for the legislature.

So that is where the initiative becomes thinkable.  There are some things that are so complex, with so many competing interests, that the initiative becomes the only way to change the law.  The Legislature simply cannot do it.  That, not surprisingly, has its own problems.  Once an initiative is passed, it may be next to impossible to amend it, even if time and changed circumstances make it completely outdated.  But for major change in energy regulation, that may be the price that must be paid.