Other Views: Washington Democrats, hold hearings on initiatives


State lawmakers have already debated hundreds of bills as they approach the midway point of a short legislative session in Olympia. But ruling Democrats have yet to allow a hearing on any of the half-dozen GOP-backed initiatives that, if passed by voters, would have profound impacts on future public policy in Washington.

The Democrats, gatekeepers of all legislative committees, have made no commitments to debate any of the six in a public forum;  they say they're still having "internal conversations" and researching the initiatives' impacts to the budget and state law. Minority Republicans say that, by waiting, Democrats are shirking a responsibility enshrined in the state's Constitution that initiatives should "take precedence" over work other than budget bills.

Regardless, the Democrats should hold committee hearings — and soon — on all the initiatives for two reasons. First, debating their merits in such a hearing would provide a public vetting before what is likely to be a contentious campaign season leading up to fall's general election. Major public policies are  on the line, including the state's landmark cap-and-trade system and a new capital gains tax funding education programs. Surely, Democratic leaders are not reticent to defend them. This editorial board strongly supported the former, although clearly it needs some legislative improvement, and opposed the latter.

Second, the Legislature has options to adopt any of the initiatives, not act and let the measure appear on the ballot or propose an alternative to also go on the ballot. Lawmakers also have an opportunity to show responsiveness to citizens who signed, exercising their right to open a formal conversation with elected representatives. For instance, adopting the initiative to roll back the state's unpopular pursuit law could bring together a coalition of lawmakers to pass it.

Unfortunately, Gov. Jay Inslee has staked a position that a "talking session" — discussing the initiatives without planning to pass them or offer an alternative to appear as a separate ballot initiative — is a waste of precious time. That mindset underestimates the threat posed by initiatives signed by hundreds of thousands of state voters.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, says lawmakers want to have firm numbers of the costs of the initiatives if enacted, as well as legal advice about how to temper or tweak the laws. Repealing the Climate Commitment Act that created cap-and-trade, for example, will likely result in billions in cuts to infrastructure and other projects around the state.

Yes, do the analysis, share it with the public and hold the hearings.  That will provide a credible conversation, pro and con, that will serve everyone. To, instead, choose to let the initiatives go to the ballot to be defended by political ads concocted by special-interest spinmeisters on all sides will not.

Respect voters by giving them a preview of the larger debate to come.