Teach With TVW: The Washington State Constitution
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Teach With TVW: The Washington State Constitution

August 27, 2019


In the late 1800s, railroad access brought
thousands of European American homesteaders from the eastern United States to the Washington
Territory. These settlers sought to govern themselves
and Washington was set on the path to statehood. A new state constitution was created in 1889
and Washington became the 42nd state. But why did Washington settlers wish to create
a government of their own? What were their concerns at the time and how
were these issues reflected in the Washington State Constitution? We were a predominantly agricultural state. The vast majority of Washingtonians either
lived on farms or small rural towns that were servicing the agricultural sector. People on farms had special concerns. University of Washington Law Professor Hugh
Spitzer is an expert on the Washington State Constitution and it’s history. Fundamentally, these were people who were
very concerned about the public being able to control their own government. They were concerned about government falling
into the hands of big businesses and corporations, particularly the railroads, grain silo operators,
people who ran the steam boats on the Columbia River, big mining companies. Basically the public was very concerned about
the legislature falling under the control of the special interest groups rather then
being controlled by the voters themselves. One primary concern Washingtonians had at
the time was access to money. In Washington State people actually had trouble
getting their hands on currency. Fundamentally farmers were boxed in by a lack
of money, by being in debt to the seed companies and the grain silo people. When Washington farmers were able to get money,
much of it had to go to the railroads in order to transport their crops. Then they had to pay exorbitant rates on the
railroads to move their wheat or their hops they were growing, to move them to market. And this made people very angry at the monopoly
control that the railroads had over their ability to get to market. The U.S. Congress passed an enabling act in
1889, allowing for creation of Washington State. A group of men were sent to Olympia to draft
a new state constitution. The delegates to the state constitution were
all men, because at that point in time only men were voting in Washington, except for
school board–women got to vote for school board. But, the men elected a pool of delegates who
came to Olympia, which was the territorial capitol, and they met for about six weeks
in the middle of the summer in 1889 and they wrote a constitution. What was the purpose of the Washington Constitution? There are two basic purposes to a constitution. One is to set up the structure of government,
and the other one, which is very clear in our state constitution, is to protect individual
rights, vis a vis government. If you look at article one of the Washington
state constitution, it really reflects this. It says, All political power is inherent in
the people. Governments derive their just powers from
the consent of the governed, and are established to protect and maintain individual rights. While Washington’s Declaration of Rights is
similar to the U.S. Bill of Rights, there are many differences as well. Our rights protections are much stronger. There are stronger religious freedom provisions
and stronger bans on any tie between government and religion. Very strong prohibition of public money being
used for religion in any way. In addition to protecting individual rights,
Washington’s constitution also sets up the three branches of state government. One of the fundamental difference with the
U.S. Constitution is the way the executive branch functions in Washington State. In the US government we elect a president
and a vice president and they’re really a team, and then they’re in charge of appointing
heads of departments. In Washington State, executive branch power
is split among 9 different independently-elected officials. People in 1889 wanted to make sure that power
was broken up among a number of different officials to make sure that nobody got too
much power. The Governor is definitely the leader, but
the Treasurer is independent, the Auditor is independent, even the Lt. Governor here
is quite independent. Judges are also elected independently in the
state. Washington’s legislative branch has a unique
clause limiting bills to a single topic. The drafters of the Washington State Constitution
put a provision in that said each bill in the legislature has to address only one subject,
and that subject has to be reflected in the title of the bill. The drafters wanted an open legislative process
for Washington State citizens. If you wanted to know what was in a piece
of legislation, it helped a lot to have a title at the beginning of the bill that says
“this bill concerns” and it tells you what’s in it very briefly, but then you knew
that if it concerned grain terminals or working conditions in mines, you knew that you’d better
read that bill. Limiting a bill to a single topic prevented
interested parties from loading up a bill with multiple, unrelated subjects. People were concerned that special interests
would go into some legislation that was working it’s way through the legislature and sneak
in things. Limiting the power of big business was also
a priority for the drafters. There was a suspicion of the railroad, grain,
seed and silo companies, and people wanted to make sure that their new state government
would control these monopolies. So we actually have provisions in the state
constitution banning monopolies. Washington’s Constitution is different from
all other state constitutions in one key area–education. Something that makes Washington’s constitution
really unique in the country is Article IX, the education provision. Article IX section one says it is the paramount
duty, so that’s the number one duty, it’s the paramount duty of the state to provide
for the education of all children residing within its borders without distinction on
account of race color caste or sex. That’s the 1889 language, it’s very special,
no other state has that today. The Washington Constitution is also a dynamic
document. It has been changed many times since its creation. State constitutions tend to be more detailed
than the federal constitution. Almost all the state constitutions are. They’re easier to amend. And so they’ve got provisions that come online
a little bit more readily than changes to the US constitution. We pretty much have the same U.S. Constitution
that we had in 1789. An important change to Washington’s constitution
came early in its history, with the addition of the initiative and referendum process. Those came in in 1911, as a result of the
progressive movement, again people concerned about keeping clean government and very importantly
government in the hands of the people. So when the Legislature passes a bill, if
you get enough signatures on a petition, that bill is referred to the people for approval
or disapproval. Also with a petition signed by I think 8%
of the voters, you can put a bill in front of the voters, a piece of legislation that
is altogether new. Though initially drafted to address the concerns
of citizens in 1889, the Washington Constitution has adapted over time, evolving to address
the concerns of the present.

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