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Wednesday, March 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Big issues are best left to the voters to decide

Special to The Times

For nearly a decade, we've been consistent: Significant public policy decisions should be made by the voters. Whether it was a public vote on the sports stadiums, $30 vehicle tabs, performance audits, caps on property-tax increases, or a smaller King County Council, we've believed that voters, and not politicians, make better decisions. And whatever the result of the vote, the citizenry more readily accepts the ultimate decision when it is made by the voters.

Everyone agrees that House Bill 2661 is a significant, impactful public-policy decision. It takes a term that most of us are somewhat familiar with, "sexual orientation," and defines it in a unique way. Here's the definition as written in the bill: " 'Sexual orientation' means heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and gender expression or identity. As used in this definition, 'gender expression or identity' means having or being perceived as having a gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior, or expression, whether or not that gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior, or expression is different from that traditionally associated with the sex assigned to that person at birth."

During floor debate on the bill, Colfax Rep. Don Cox said it well, describing the bill as "ill-defined" and open to many interpretations. "We limit liberty when we ask citizens to interpret one another's sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity," Cox said. "In the push and pull of life, sexual orientation is not apparent and is difficult to determine. Please consider the possibilities for misinterpretation in the daily exercise of commerce, housing, employment, public accommodation, real estate, credit, or insurance."

He said the bill creates the possibility that responsible citizens could put themselves at risk of "accusation, investigation, findings of discrimination and penalties without intentional wrongdoing." Laws that put citizens on the defensive against accusations could be "an incubator for an atmosphere of protectiveness rather than openness," he said.

No state in the nation has a law written this way. If we're going to be a guinea pig for experimental legislation like HB 2661, it's important for there to be a thorough debate and discussion. The consequences of this bill, both intended and unintended, need to be examined and probed.

We've called our campaign "Let The Voters Decide."

In recent weeks, supporters of HB 2661 have said that having a public vote on this topic is inappropriate. Their view is not consistent. In 1997, these same folks pushed this same policy as an initiative, I-677. Back then, they felt it perfectly appropriate for the voters to have the final say. They raised and spent big bucks trying to persuade voters to support I-677. But the voters overwhelmingly rejected it. So their recent objections to a public vote only materialized after they learned that the voters were against their agenda. Hypocrisy is not unique in politics but it should be recognized and identified.

Some have questioned our motivation on this issue. Again, we've been consistent. The first initiative I ever co-sponsored was Initiative 200, the "Washington Civil Rights Initiative," overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1998. It made it illegal for state and local governments to grant preferential treatment to anyone based on what group they belonged to.

HB 2661 violates this principle. I-200 said no to government-imposed preferences based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. "Let The Voters Decide" gives voters the opportunity to reaffirm their support for this no-preference policy and add another group to the list that shouldn't get preferential treatment by government.

If we're successful at getting enough signatures to put this policy before the voters this fall, we'll debate whether this policy is counterproductive.

To me, it is. Government-imposed preferential treatment will only enhance suspicion and conflict between our citizens exactly as described earlier by Rep. Cox. When the classroom teacher treats Johnny special, the other kids end up not liking Johnny. When government gets involved, it usually makes things worse. This is especially true when it comes to social issues. Better for the government to stay out of it.

Besides, our citizenry doesn't support same-sex marriage, something the courts will impose if HB 2661 stands. It's exactly what's happening in other states, most recently Maryland and Massachusetts.

For this reason and others explained above, this bill is a Pandora's box that Olympia opened but voters should have the chance to close.

This is a big decision and both sides deserve the chance to express their opinion without intimidation or fear of retaliation. Name-calling shows a lack of confidence in your position. I have faith in the voters. Each of us will decide what we think is best for our state, using our own values, background and beliefs as our guide. And when the dust settles, the voters will decide.

Tim Eyman is co-sponsor of the "Let The Voters Decide" campaign (Referendum 65), www.LetTheVotersDecide.net, 425-493-8707.

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