Fixing I-940, and doing it right

The following op-ed appeared in the Prosser Record-Bulletin and Dayton Chronicle during the week of Feb. 4.

Note: We were saddened to hear of Rep. Bill Jenkin’s recent heart attack, and we join with the people of the 16th District in wishing him a speedy recovery. Bill was stricken Friday, Jan. 25, and is expected to be away from Olympia for several weeks. While he recuperates, we hope you will not hesitate to contact our offices with your questions and concerns. We are here to serve you.

— Sen. Maureen Walsh and Rep. Skyler Rude

By Sen. Maureen Walsh

It is important for the Legislature to fix initiatives that don’t work as intended, but it is just as important that we follow the law when we do it. This is the real lesson of the first bill to pass this year, a measure that fixes the problems with Initiative 940.

This initiative, approved by voters last fall by a 60-40 margin, imposes new rules on the police use of deadly force. Unfortunately, the standards it imposed were subjective and open to interpretation, and they failed to offer the guidance law enforcement officers need in making split-second decisions that can mean the difference between life and death.

So the Legislature crafted a compromise that won the support of initiative sponsors and the law enforcement community. The Legislature’s changes to the initiative impose more-objective standards, and establish a robust training and certification program. We passed these changes in the form of a bill that won unanimous approval in the House and Senate. This exceeded the constitution’s requirement for a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to amend recently-passed initiatives. We sent it to the governor’s desk Wednesday, the first bill of the 2019 session.

This was an even bigger win than it sounds. This case also reaffirmed the initiative process in this state, and preserved it as an avenue for the people of Washington to pass direct legislation.

I-940 was submitted as an initiative to the Legislature last year after 350,000 Washington voters signed petitions. Under the constitution, this type of initiative gives lawmakers just three options. They can pass it as-is, and it becomes a law and skips the ballot. If lawmakers take no action, the initiative proceeds to the ballot and voters get to decide. Or the Legislature can send an alternative measure to the ballot, allowing voters to choose which one they prefer, or neither.

Unfortunately, when we tried fixing the initiative for the first time last year, members of the majority party did none of the above. Instead, they passed a bill amending the initiative with a simple-majority, and then passed the initiative itself. They declared that the initiative need not go to the ballot — the voters need not be asked.

The Legislature had never done anything like that before, and many on our side cried foul. If lawmakers can rewrite an initiative and never give people a say in the matter, and can duck the requirement of a supermajority vote, it makes initiatives to the Legislature a meaningless option.

This tactic prompted a lawsuit and a state Supreme Court ruling that sent the original initiative to the ballot. Lawmakers, meanwhile, were sent back to square one.

That’s why the passage of the new bill this week was so important. Initiatives to the Legislature are a valuable tool for a public interested in good legislation, because they allow lawmakers to identify and correct problems, as we did in this case. By doing things the right way, we preserved the process, and established that the Legislature is not above the law.