In 1914, it cost $117.23 to file an initiative in 2013 dollars… so why does it only cost $5 today?

Ballot WatchdoggingRethinking and Reframing

As of yesterday, we are three weeks into 2013, and already, Tim Eyman has filed sixteen initiatives to the people, including two today. That’s an average of more than five per week, and it’s one more than the total number of initiatives to the people filed so far in 2013 (fifteen) by everybody else.

Reporters and longtime observers of state government know that over the years, Eyman has become an increasingly prolific sponsor of initiatives. Most of the measures he files are simply duplicate copies (or near-duplicate copies) of the same set of bad ideas he’s been hawking for more than a decade. We have never seen an Eyman initiative aimed at ending homelessness or cleaning up Puget Sound. We have, however, seen plenty of Eyman initiatives written to deliberately wreck government and sabotage our common wealth so that vital public services are starved of revenue.

Every time Eyman files an initiative, it costs him just five dollars to get a ballot title from the Attorney General’s office and to get feedback from the Code Reviser. But it costs the rest of us much more. The Secretary of State’s office freely admits that five dollars doesn’t come close to covering the cost of processing initiative and referendum filings. Yet the filing fee has never been raised. Staff at the Secretary of State’s office confirmed to NPI today that the filing fee has stayed at $5 ever since the initiative and referendum process was established over a hundred years ago.

In 1912, when the initiative and referendum powers were added to the State Constitution, Washington was a very different place. Far fewer people lived here; many of the cities and towns that are now nestled in our mountain foothills, above our rocky coastlines, or on the rolling plains of the Columbia Plateau did not exist. For example, the City of Redmond, NPI’s hometown, was incorporated December 31st, 1912… several weeks after that year’s election took place.

In those days, five dollars went a lot further than it does now. In fact, in 1914, the first year that initiatives appeared on Washington’s ballot, it cost about $117.23 to file an initiative… in 2013 dollars.

So why does it only cost $5 today? The filing fee hasn’t been updated to keep up with inflation, let alone cover the true costs of filing an initiative or a referendum.

Five dollars, to people in 1914, was what we would consider about $117.23 today, according to WolframAlpha’s U.S. inflation calculator. Here’s the math:

1914 filing fee x (2013 CPI/1914 CPI) = 1914 price in today’s dollars

See the input and the results on WolframAlpha.

The CPI, for those reading who don’t know, stands for Consumer Price Index. It is a key economic indicator calculated by the Department of Labor. It is widely used for many purposes. For example, Washington State’s Department of Labor & Industries looks at the CPI when determining how to adjust Washington’s minimum wage each year. (The minimum wage just went up a few weeks ago, on January 1st).

Eyman and others have argued the filing fee should not be raised because a higher fee would impede citizens who wish to drum up public awareness for their ideas.

But this argument does not hold water. Plenty of people filed initiatives during the years when five dollars was akin to $117, or $100, or $75, or $50 today. And, in fact, anyone wishing to file an initiative today has to compete with Tim Eyman, whose high number of duplicate filings make the list maintained by the Secretary of State’s website more difficult to browse. Eyman’s ballot title shopping is creating unnecessary work for the people who remain in the Secretary of State’s office, the Attorney General’s office, and the Code Reviser’s office. Eyman is wasting state resources by filing the same initiative texts over and over and over… and he doesn’t care.

It is time that we raised the initiative filing fee so it at least is brought current with inflation. We have calculated that it cost about $117.23 to file an initiative in 1914. Why shouldn’t it cost about the same now?

To accommodate Washingtonians who are on a limited income and wish to be able to put forth an idea for consideration as an initiative, lawmakers could permit the Secretary of State to waive the filing fee for individuals who find, say, five hundred other like-minded citizens of the State of Washington to cosponsor their initiative.

This would encourage the formation of efforts that are truly grassroots. No initiative campaign that cannot afford (or chooses not to make use of) paid signature gatherers can get a measure on the ballot without doing true grassroots organizing. A person wishing to file an initiative should either be able to help the State of Washington cover the true costs of processing their filing, or demonstrate that there is enough interest in their idea to justify the waiving of the filing fee. Such an approach would mirror the way that filing fees for public office work today.

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