Washington State Grange initiative to authorize creation of public utility districts is filed with the Secretary of State on October 25, 1928.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 3/07/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10721

On October 25, 1928, the Washington State Grange and its allies file with the Secretary of State an initiative to the legislature to authorize creation of public utility districts (PUDs) to provide electrical power and water service to unincorporated areas of the state. Both Seattle and Tacoma have municipally-owned electrical and water utilities created earlier in the century, but unincorporated rural areas remain at the mercy of private utility companies, many of which are owned by national conglomerates widely viewed as insensitive to the public's needs. After a successful petition drive, the utility district measure will go before the state legislature during the 1929 legislative session. Because of the Senate's refusal to enact it, the measure will appear on the 1930 general-election ballot, where it will be approved by voters and become law. It is but one of a series of Grange-sponsored initiatives during the twentieth century that advance causes dear to farmers and their allies in the Progressive Movement and organized labor.

A Progressive Force

The Washington State Grange was founded on September 10, 1889, at the Pioneer Store in La Camas (now Camas), Clark County, two months before Washington was granted statehood. It was formed at that early date in large part to contest certain provisions of a draft state constitution, written by a convention heavily influenced by railroad interests. While unsuccessful in altering the state's foundational document at its inception, the Grange would have more success amending it in later years. These successes would help the organization become a powerful and progressive force in the state's political life, particularly during the first three decades of the twentieth century.

A pivotal early success for the Grange and its progressive allies, and one which made many of their future campaigns possible, was the 1911 approval by the legislature of an amendment to the state constitution empowering voters to enact legislation directly through initiatives, or pass on the wisdom of legislative acts through referendums. In the initiative process, legislation originates with the public and is then either submitted directly to the voters or, alternatively, submitted to the legislature. In the latter case, the legislature has three options: enact the measure into law as written; refuse to enact it, requiring that it be put to a public vote; or draft an alternative measure and submit both versions to the voters. Referendums differ from initiatives in that the laws in question originate in the legislature, but are then referred to the voters for approval or negation.

The proposed constitutional amendment allowing initiatives and referendums went to the people in the November 1912 general election and was approved by nearly 72 percent of those voting. This margin of victory was helped by the votes of women, whose right to cast ballots was secured by another constitutional amendment the Grange had helped push through two years earlier (and fully 10 years before woman suffrage became the law nationwide). Each early Grange victory facilitated those that came later; women's votes helped pass the initiative and referendum amendment, and that in turn allowed the Grange and its allies to write and seek voter approval of additional laws addressing other shared concerns.

The early Grange was animated in large part by an abiding distrust of monopolies, with which the country was rife. Its opening target was the railroad corporations, blamed by many including the Grange for triggering through excesses and improvidence the deep economic recessions that plagued nearly every decade of the last half of the nineteenth century. In addition to the harm inflicted on the overall economy, as Grangers saw it the railroads lost no opportunity to wring exorbitant fees from farmers desperate to get their crops to market. These battles would go on for years, but one signal achievement of the Washington Grange was the creation of a state Railroad Commission in 1905, empowered to investigate and adjust rates when complaints were received.

Public versus Private Utilities

Privately owned water and electrical utilities -- profit-driven, mostly Eastern-owned, virtually untouchable, and having little regard for the needs of sparsely populated rural areas -- were another target of the Washington Grange in the first years of the twentieth century. While they may have been in the organization’s sights even earlier, the 1908 state Grange convention specifically resolved to:

"[D]emand of the next Legislature the submission of a constitutional amendment, providing that counties be granted all the rights and privileges now granted or hereafter to be granted to cities, including ... the right to operate public utilities" (Report of Proceedings, 170).

The mention of "cities" was a clear reference to Seattle and Tacoma, both of which owned their municipal power and water utilities, although only Seattle's was generating its own electricity at that time. The creation of these municipal services was largely due to the activities of the Progressive Movement, a key tenet of which was public ownership of natural resources and basic utility services. But by 1908, only municipal corporations had been delegated the power to establish such utilities, leaving rural areas largely at the mercy of private providers. It would take more than 20 years, but the Grange and its allies would eventually succeed in extending the necessary authority to areas outside of the state's urban concentrations.

District Power Measure

Still, by as late as the 1920s, and outside of a scattering of urban areas, the supply of water and electricity across the state was dominated by a few large operations having local-sounding names --notably Puget Sound Power and Light, Washington Water Power (which served much of Eastern Washington), Pacific Power and Light, and Grays Harbor Railway and Light -- but controlled by national conglomerates. After skirmishing for years with these behemoths and a legislature that they lobbied heavily, the Grange and its allies took a new tack.

Grange leaders wanted very much to press the utilities battle in the early 1920s but were hampered by money woes and a membership demoralized by low farm prices and the failure of a predicted post-World War I boom. But they hammered at the issue nonetheless, with speakers traveling the state to whip up support. The mere promise of trying to bring reliable and affordable electrical and water supplies to rural areas proved to be a great recruiting tool, and by 1928 the organization was largely rejuvenated and ready to act.

Rather than simply asking the legislature enact a constitutional amendment allowing rural areas to establish public utilities, as demanded by the Grange in 1908, it was decided to force the issue using the initiative process that had been added to the constitution by voters in 1912. But it was early fall of 1928 before the Grange and its allies were fully mobilized, too late to file an initiative to appear on the ballot in that November's general election. The Grange had another way to proceed: An initiative petition could be submitted directly to the legislature any time up to 10 days before it convened. If the legislature refused to approve the measure in the 1929 session, it would go to a public vote in November 1930. This gave the Grange two bites at the apple -- if legislators approved the measure in the 1929 session, it became law; if they didn't, the Grange had about 20 months to win public backing before it appeared on the ballot the following year (statewide elections at this time were held every two years).

Pursuant to the Grange plan, Initiative to the Legislature No. 1, known as the District Power Measure, was filed with the Secretary of State's office on October 25, 1928. (Despite it being labeled No. 1, there had actually been an earlier initiative to the legislature, a 1914 "Brewers' Hotel Bill" that sought to relax state Prohibition rules. However, that was originally designated incorrectly as Initiative to the People No. 18 and was not corrected until years later, when it was given the title "Initiative to the Legislature 1A").

The Grange and other supporters proceeded to gather 57,900 signatures (7,900 more than needed), and the District Power Measure was submitted to the legislature in early January 1929, shortly before that body met for its biennial session. As most predicted, the legislature was not overly impressed, but its vote was closer than many thought it would be. On February 1, 1929, the Senate refused to act on the measure by a relatively narrow 20-17 margin. This automatically put the initiative on the ballot for a vote of the people in the next general election, to be held in November 1930.

The Grange and its allies worked hard to educate the state's voters on the benefits of the proposed law, but the opposition was equally active and far better financed. In their efforts to defeat it, private utility companies provided newspapers around the state with prewritten copy, both news and editorial, and even political cartoons lambasting the proposed law. The Secretary of State mailed a complete copy of the bill to all registered voters, but its length and dense legalese were no doubt daunting to most. However, public animus against the huge power and water conglomerates was widespread, and the law's supporters played effectively on this. When the votes were counted in November 1930 the initiative had won approval by a margin of 152,487 to 130,901. Interestingly, for such a controversial measure, only slightly more than half of the registered voters in the state even cast ballots on the issue.

What the Law Did

The District Power Measure, retitled "Power and Water Districts," was enacted as 1931 Wash. Laws, Ch. 1. It was long and comprehensive, taking up some 30 pages and 9,000 words in the published statutes. Its core provisions were set out at the beginning:

"Section 1: The purpose of this act is to authorize the establishment of public utility districts to conserve the water and power resources of the State of Washington for the benefit of the people thereof, and to supply public utility service, including water and electricity, for all purposes.

"Section 2: Municipal corporations, to be known as public utility districts, are hereby authorized for the purposes of this act and may be established within the limits of the State of Washington, as provided herein" (1932 Wash. Laws, Ch. 1, Sec. 2).

In practical terms, all areas of the state, urban and rural alike, were now empowered to establish municipal corporations, to be called public utility districts, and through them to provide district inhabitants electrical power, and water for consumption, domestic use, and/or irrigation. Such districts could be coterminous with county boundaries, but did not need to be. Countywide districts could be proposed by county commissioners or by a petition signed by 10 percent of the qualified voters. Districts of less than county size required a similar petition. In either case, the decision of whether to go ahead and create a public utility district was left to the voters in the proposed district, with a simple majority needed for a measure to pass.

Under the original law, amended many times since, each district would have three commissioners, elected by divisions within the district and serving three-year terms, without pay. In the section of the law that was perhaps most threatening to private utility interests, public utility districts were granted the power, as paraphrased by a legal commentator of the day:

"to lease, build, buy, condemn and operate electric generating plants and distribution lines ... and systems for irrigation and domestic waters within and without the district, and for these purposes to take, condemn, and buy public and private property ... " (Marple, 72, italics in original).

In other words, public utility districts were empowered to condemn, purchase, and take over the operations of private utility companies. This provision was to lead to many spirited battles throughout much of the twentieth century, and in the run-up to the vote the condemnation provisions raised concerns on both sides of the issue. Even those who generally supported public utilities were concerned that new districts might be created within urban areas that already had municipally owned utilities, then use their power of condemnation to take over those operations. And, of course, the private utilities feared that all their assets could fall prey to condemnation actions by local public utility districts, and without adequate compensation. Most of these fears, on either side, were not realized.

There was a considerable lag between the law's passage and its widespread use. The first PUD established under its terms came in 1934, when voters approved Mason County District No. 1, which still today provides electricity, water, and sewer service in and around Hoodsport. The law remained under legal challenge until 1936, raising uncertainty about its validity, and this no doubt was a restraining influence. But when it was upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court in 1936, the floodgates started to open, and by the end of that decade there were 23 PUDs in operation statewide. Although used with less frequency in later decades, the law retained its force. As one example, the Jefferson County PUD originally was formed in 1939 to provide only water, but in 2008 county voters approved the utility's expansion into electrical service as well.

The passage of the Power and Water Districts Act did not end the competition between private and public utilities in Washington. Virtually every attempt to establish a PUD under the law was met by fierce opposition from advocates of private utilities, some driven by financial interest and some by political beliefs. These battles go on, at a much lower temperature, even now. But the passage of the act did mark an important pivot point in the long battle between those who supported unbridled, free-market capitalism and those who believed that the natural resources of the state should inure to the benefit of its people, without the intermediation of profit-driven corporations. Perhaps even more important, it marked the maturation of the Washington State Grange as a political force to be reckoned with, a role that it continued to occupy in 2014, 125 years after its founding.


Sources: Elliott Marple, "The Movement for Public Ownership of Power in Washington," The Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics, Vol. 7, No. 1 (February 1931), pp. 61-66; "Initiative and Referendum," 1911 Wash. Laws, Ch. 42; "Constitutional Amendment for Recall of Elective Officers," 1911 Wash. Laws, Ch. 108; "Power and Water Districts," 1931 Wash. Laws, Ch. 1; "Elections and Voting," Washington Secretary of State website accessed March 4, 2014 (http://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/press.aspx); Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the Washington State Grange, Vancouver, 1908 (Vancouver, Washington: Columbia Publishing Company, 1908), 170; Bob Royer, "Electrifying America," The Cascadia Courier website accessed February 8, 2014 (http://www.thecascadiacourier.com/2011/10/electrifying-america.html); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Washington State Grange" (by John Caldbick), and "Hodde, Charles William (1906-1999)" (by John Caldbick), and "Washington State Legislature approves Grange-sponsored blanket primary initiative on February 21, 1935" (by John Caldbick), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed March 4, 2014).

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