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Olympia – A bill in the Legislature to reform the paid signature-gathering and initiative-promotion industries in Washington has the support of one of the state’s leading watchdog groups.
“Professional initiative sponsors like Tim Eyman are freeloading on the backs of taxpayers; we’re subsidizing his business,” says Steve Breaux, public interest advocate at the Washington Public Interest Research Group (WashPIRG). “If the initiative industry can afford to pay signature gathers, pay for media campaigns to promote their products, and pay their sponsors for management and consulting, then they can certainly pay the overhead cost of validating their initiatives and making sure they follow the rules.”
Breaux testified before the House Committee on State Government in support of House Bill 1668, sponsored by Rep. Chris Reykdal (D-Tumwater), requiring paid signature gathers to register with the Secretary of State’s office and for professional initiative sponsors to follow guidelines that provide increased transparency and accountability to the initiative process.
Many of the legislation’s provisions are aimed at preventing fraud in the paid signature-gathering industry. HB-1668, as well as Senate Bill 5297, require paid signature gatherers and initiative promoters to certify that they have not been convicted of a crime involving fraud, forgery or identity theft, and require signature gatherers to sign an affidavit on the back of petition sheets certifying that the signatures were gathered legally. Violators would be subject to fines that would be paid into an account used to verify signatures and validate initiatives. Volunteer signature gatherers would also have to certify that they’ve followed the rules in obtaining signatures, but would not be required to register with the Secretary of State’s office.
Initiative sponsors would be required to pay a $500 filing fee, of which $450 would be refunded if the initiative actually qualified for the ballot. Groups that cannot afford to pay a filing fee would be eligible for a waiver by submitting 1,000 signatures.
“Increasing the filling fee from $5 – a rate set decades ago – to $500 is essential to more accurately reflect the cost of processing initiatives, as well as to discourage the filing of frivolous initiatives that waste taxpayer money,” said Breaux.
Between the years 2000 and 2005 only 21 initiatives qualified for the ballot, but the state had to pay for the processing of all 326 initiatives that were filed during that period, including the cost of validation by the Secretary of State’s office, review by the code reviser for errors and potential conflict with existing statutes, preparation of a certificate of review for the initiative sponsor, and assignment of a ballot title by the Attorney General’s office.
“Last year, Initiative 1069 was filed requiring that state seal be changed to include a tapeworm dressed in a three piece suit attached to the lower intestine of a taxpayer,” Breaux told the committee. “The sponsor paid the $5 filing fee, so the Secretary of State was required to spend our tax dollars processing an initiative that can only be described as frivolous, and for which no signatures were ever submitted. This kind of things happens all the time and we’re hopeful that HB-1668 can help save the taxpayers from having to subsidize what amounts to a practical joke.”
WashPIRG supports provisions of HB-1668 that provide accountability to the signature-gathering process, but Breaux said he’d be even more encouraged if a way could be found to place the financial burden of initiative validation where it belongs – on those who make a living off the system instead of the taxpayers.
“Taxpayers have an obligation to fund the democratic process,” Breaux noted. “But the initiative process is no longer a tool of grassroots democracy. It is a business. It is an industry. It is a tool of well-financed special interests that is being subsidized by the taxpayers of Washington, and it’s in serious need of reform.”
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