Voters favor insurance bill, rainy-day fund; Eyman's anti-tax measure passing
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
Despite a record-setting deluge of spending by the insurance industry, voters on Tuesday handily approved a measure that allows policyholders to sue for triple damages if an insurance company "unreasonably" denies a legitimate claim.
Meanwhile, a long-debated constitutional amendment that would allow school levies to pass with a simple majority of the vote was trailing in much of the state but ahead in King County.
Initiative 960, Tim Eyman's latest attempt to make it harder for the Legislature to raise taxes, appeared headed for victory.
And voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment requiring the state to set aside a small portion of tax collections each year in a "rainy-day" fund.
One interesting pattern emerged: On most of the major ballot measures, the side that spent the least money was leading after Tuesday's vote tallies.
"Voters don't care which side has more money," Eyman said. "They care which side has the better message."
Here's more on these four closely watched measures:
Referendum 67 passed by especially wide margins in the heavily populated Puget Sound region.
"It looks very strong for us," said state Sen. Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island, an attorney who sponsored the law in the Legislature.
With hundreds of thousands of ballots still uncounted, Dana Childers, spokeswoman for the Reject R-67 campaign, said the outcome wasn't decided. But, she added, "It's a longshot, no doubt about it."
Under the measure, consumers can collect up to triple damages if a court finds their insurer acted in bad faith in denying a claim. It applies to nonmedical policies such as auto, home, business and long-term-care claims. It does not apply to health insurance, covered under another law.
Statewide, Referendum 67 was by far this year's most hotly contested election issue. It was in many ways a replay of the fight waged two years ago over a medical-malpractice ballot measure.
For the past several months, the two sides hammered each other in ads.
As of Monday, the insurance industry's Reject R-67 campaign had raised more than $11.4 million, a record for one side in a state ballot measure. More than half of the money came from four companies — State Farm, Farmers Group, Safeco Insurance and Allstate Insurance.
Nearly all of the $3 million raised by the Approve 67 campaign came from trial lawyers.
Ref. 67 stems from a bill approved earlier this year by the Democratic-controlled Legislature. After Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the measure, the insurance industry immediately launched a referendum drive to overturn it.
Trial lawyers argued the new law would help level the playing field between consumers and insurance companies. They said that under present law, which only allows consumers to sue for actual damages, it benefits companies to lowball and drag out claims.
The insurance industry and the state's largest business groups warn Referendum 67 will lead to a flood of fraudulent claims and frivolous lawsuits. The costs will ultimately be passed on to consumers in the form of higher rates, the opponents argued.
But Weinstein said he thinks voters identified with the Approve 67 campaign's message.
"Everybody buys insurance," he said. "And a lot of people have had not-so-good experiences with their insurance companies."
Supporters of Resolution 4204 saw this election as the big chance they've worked three decades to get. It took them that long to persuade state lawmakers to put a measure like this on the ballot, asking voters whether to lower the approval level for school levies from 60 percent of the vote to 50 percent.
But despite mounting a $3 million campaign — and facing no organized opposition — they were discouraged by Tuesday's vote tallies.
Supporters are now pinning their hopes on absentee ballots in King County, one of the few places where the measure was leading.
"King County brings it home or not," said Lisa Macfarlane, co-founder of the League of Education Voters, which strongly supported the measure.
Most school levies eventually pass, even with the supermajority requirement. Supporters said it's unfair that schools must earn more than a majority vote to approve levies that provide, on average, about 17 percent of their annual budgets.
Districts are limited in how much they can seek from voters. The levies must be renewed every few years.
Opponents have argued that the 60 percent requirement applies not just to school districts but any government that wants to raise property taxes beyond the constitutionally protected limit of $10 per $1,000 of a property's assessed value. They also objected to removing the voter-turnout minimum.
Eyman, who makes a living pushing ballot initiatives, this year returned to his favorite theme: taxes. I-960 would reinforce an existing law that requires two-thirds votes in the Legislature to raise taxes. That provision, part of a spending-limit approved by voters 14 years ago, has largely been watered down by lawmakers during the past decade.
As they have in the past, Eyman's opponents argued I-960 is unnecessary and warned it would seriously hinder lawmakers' ability to address critical public needs. And, as is often the case, Eyman was outspent by his foes. The No on I-960 campaign — backed by many of the state's largest labor unions and businesses — raised nearly $1.2 million.
That's double what was raised by Eyman's political action committee, Voters Want More Choices. Most of that money was spent on paid signature gathering to qualify the measure for the ballot.
Eyman said that — win or lose — voters sent a strong message to politicians: "We're just tapped out. We just can't give any more. You're going to have to make do with the money you're already collecting from us."
But opponents were not ready to concede. They're hoping that uncounted ballots in King County — where the measure is trailing badly — will turn the tide.
"We'll wait a couple of days to see how the vote does," Christian Sinderman, spokesman for the opposition campaign, told The Associated Press.
Aside from reinforcing the existing two-thirds-vote requirement, I-960 would broaden the law to include all taxes, including the gas tax. Lawmakers could avoid the two-thirds vote requirement by putting proposed tax increases up for a public vote.
After being floated for more than a decade in Olympia, the idea of creating a constitutionally protected "rainy-day" fund finally took hold this year. At Gregoire's urging, Senate Joint Resolution 8206 was approved in the House and Senate.
Voters' approval means 1 percent of the state's general-fund revenue will be set aside automatically each year.
Lawmakers can spend from the fund with a simple-majority vote only during severe economic downturns or when responding to a disaster or terrorist attack. Otherwise, it would take a 60 percent supermajority to tap the money.
Staff reporter Linda Shaw contributed to this story.
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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