This editorial will appear in Monday’s printed edition.
Washington’s ballot will be short one initiative this fall after a surprising turn of events that underscored the power – and limitations – of citizen legislating.
Initiative 1130 – which would have banned keeping egg-laying hens in constricted, stacked cages – appeared to be destined for the November election until just a few days ago. Backers had collected more than 350,000 signatures and $560,000.
But a deal between commercial egg producers and an animal rights organization – announced on the eve of the state’s deadline to submit initiative petitions – scrambled I-1130 sponsors’ plans.
The Humane Society of the United States halted efforts to pass initiatives in Washington and Oregon in exchange for United Egg Producers’ support for federal legislation to improve hens’ living conditions.
Compromise offered the best possible outcome.
Federal rules would benefit all 280 million hens rather than just 6 million Washington cluckers. The egg industry would get a nationwide standard to live by rather than a hodgepodge of state laws, and voters won’t have to make the call about how best to balance animal welfare and commerce.
Would that more groups were able to settle their differences in such a way, without forcing the electorate into all-or-nothing scenarios that rarely come without major complications.
The right of initiative and referendum is a powerful backstop to legislative overreach and inaction, but too often it is the default for interest groups impatient or simply unimpressed with elected lawmakers’ efforts to address their concerns.
Animals in particular seem to inspire ill-conceived attempts to regulate their treatment by popular vote. A 1996 initiative that banned the use of dogs in hunting cougars had to be partly repealed four years later after the state experienced an alarming surge in cougar problems.
More unintended consequences followed a 2000 ballot measure that outlawed most trapping of mammals and hobbled efforts to keep moles from digging up yards, beavers from blocking salmon-bearing streams, and coyotes from killing newborn calves and lambs.
We could go on: the green power initiative that forces utilities to buy power they don’t need, and twin initiatives that mandated teacher pay raises and classroom-size reductions without a way to pay for them.
Suffice it to say that initiatives are very often the easy way out. They skip the give-and-take vetting of the legislative process – and they are delivered as faits accomplis that legislators are loath to touch, at least initially.
Better results are usually had when warring camps put aside their petitions and identify common ground. Initiatives are useful to compel negotiations – this year’s reform of the state workers’ compensation system, sparked by an unsuccessful ballot measure, is an example – but they rarely are reliable vehicles of change on their own.