Washington voters reject growth controls and open-space taxes, Seattle voters support domestic-partner ordinance, and Tacoma voters defeat gay rights measure on November 6, 1990.

  • By David Wilma, Alyssa Burrows, and HistoryLink Staff
  • Posted 10/30/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5596
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On November 6, 1990, Washington voters reject an initiative to limit growth. Republicans retain control of the state Senate and the Democratic majority in the House slips. Voters in five counties resoundingly reject taxes that would preserve open spaces. Seattle voters refuse to overturn benefits for domestic partners of city employees, while Tacoma voters turn down a proposal, the second within a year, to grant equal protection against discrimination to homosexuals.

Growth Management Measure Loses, Legislature Acts

Initiative 547, backed by environmental groups, would have required imposed state-controlled growth management on all Washington counties and cities. The growth-management measure, prompted by voter frustration over the effects of rapidly increasing, uncoordinated development, especially in the central Puget Sound area, had been filed early in the year. In an attempt at compromise, the state legislature that spring passed a Growth Management Act (GMA) that was nowhere near as strong as the environmentalists' proposal. After some debate, I-547 supporters decided to proceed with the initiative campaign, concluding that the GMA as enacted was insufficient to control exploding growth.

Opponents highlighted the length of the 53-page measure and its complex language, launching a mail campaign that stressed, "Read the fine print." Perhaps more significantly, legislative leaders and Governor Booth Gardner (1936-2013) responded to the environmentalists' concerns by promising to strengthen the GMA if I-547 was defeated. It was, in the most lopsided defeat of an initiative since the 1916 trouncing of a measure to allow the serving of liquor in hotels. But the threat of the initiative had an effect: The next spring the legislature passed and Governor Gardner signed legislation significantly strengthening the GMA.

Washington voters also rejected other ballot measures that would have given tax breaks to low-income housing, changed the way new counties are organized, and allowed higher local taxes. And they maintained the divided control of the legislature, with Republicans continuing to control the Senate and Democrats, albeit by a smaller margin than they had had, the House of Representatives.

Open-Space Funding Defeated

King County voters defeated a proposal for a new tax to fund purchases of land to preserve open spaces. Proposition 21 asked for a tax on home and other real-estate purchases to finance land acquisition, and this set the real estate industry against its passage. The measure would have imposed an additional 1 percent excise tax on buyers of commercial, residential, and industrial land for the coming decade. The hope was to raise more than $100 million annually for purchase of forests, wetlands, shorelines, and other open space threatened by development. Real estate sellers already paid a 1.53 percent excise tax at the time.

A question of whether banks could legally finance the tax through a borrower's loan caused friction between backers and opponents and confusion among voters. Opponents argued that federal regulations would not allow the tax to be financed through a mortgage, so that it would have to be paid in cash at closing. Tim Ceis, head of Puget Sound Citizens for Open Space, responded that U.S. Senator Brock Adams (1927-2004) had informed him that there were no rules in the Federal Housing Authority to prevent the tax from being financed.

The real-estate lobby spent three times more money opposing Proposition 21 than supporters spent promoting it. The Washington Association of Realtors persuaded Jack Kemp, federal Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to rule that the Federal Housing Authority would not allow the tax to be financed with other closing costs. Proponents of the measure complained of the Bush administration's involvement in a local election.

Besides confusion and controversy, the measure failed in part because voters had just approved a $117 million bond issue for open space the year before. Unofficial poll results showed that Proposition 21 received 85,414 votes in favor and 126,712 votes against. Voters in four other counties also rejected open-space taxes.

Seattleites Uphold Benefits for Domestic Partners

In April 1989, the Seattle Human Rights Commission issued a proposed finding that Seattle City Light had discriminated against three employees by not granting them health benefits because of sexual orientation. The commission held that the 1973 City's Fair Employment Practices Ordinance protected employees with live-in partners. On May 22, the Seattle City Council suspended that portion of the ordinance when the City Attorney advised that granting health benefits to domestic partners might threaten the city's tax-exempt status. On August 14, the council voted 8-1 to create a status of dependent called "domestic partner" eligible for medical leave and bereavement leave.

A group calling itself Citizens For Family organized under the leadership of Julia Fogassy to block the ordinance by collecting signatures for a referendum as provided for under the City Charter. The effort was unsuccessful and the ordinance went into effect in September 1989.

The ordinance affected fewer than 400 city employees out of 10,000. City records showed that the majority of employees applying for domestic partner benefits were involved in heterosexual relationships. Domestic partnership was extended to an employee and a partner who signed a document attesting to a close, committed personal relationship and expressing responsibility for each other's welfare.

On March 26, 1990, the Council appropriated funds to extend health and dental benefits to domestic partners. That same month, Citizens for Family turned in the required signatures to overturn the Family Leave Ordinance for the fall ballot. The campaign for and against Initiative 35 raised issues of family values, bigotry, fiscal responsibility, gay rights, and religious teaching. Opponents of the initiative organized around "No on 35" and out-fundraised the proponents. An October poll suggested that voters favored repeal of the ordinance by two to one. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle took no position on the matter, unlike its counterpart in San Francisco which steadfastly opposed domestic partner legislation.

In the end, the measure failed and city employees retained domestic partnership benefits. Seattle voters also approved a seven-year levy to improve schools, bucking a statewide trend against higher taxes.

Tacoma Voters Reject Gay Rights a Second Time

For the second time in a year, Tacoma voters considered a measure that would have granted equal rights to homosexuals. As it had been a year earlier, the proposal was defeated.

In 1989, the Tacoma City Council passed a law banning discrimination against homosexuals in housing, lending, and employment, on the recommendation of the Tacoma Human Rights Commission. In November 1989 voters repealed that law.

The Committee to Protect Tacoma Human Rights then successfully got Proposition 1, to reinstate the ban on discrimination against gays and lesbians, on the general election ballot in 1990. The No Special Rights Committee campaigned against the proposition. Voters defeated Proposition 1 by a two-to-one margin.

Turnout and Vote Counts

The turnout in King County was predicted at 48 percent, but 61 percent of registered voters showed up statewide and almost 58 percent appeared in King County. Some polling places ran out of ballots.

Some of the vote counts are as follows:

  • Initiative 547, Growth Planning: Yes - 327,339 No - 986,505
  • SJR 8212, Low-Income Housing Tax Breaks: Yes - 606,683 No - 608,223
  • HJR 4231, Local Taxes: Yes - 407,423 No - 848,026
  • HJR 4203, County Reorganization: Yes - 403,377 No - 810,098


Lisa Schnellinger, "Growth Curbs Soundly Beaten," The Seattle Times, November 7, 1990, pp. A-1, A-8; Linda Yoshikawa-Cogley, "Trounced Measure Apparently Was Way Too Much for Voters to Take," Ibid., pp. A-1, A-6; Pete McConnell, "'Family' Levy is Favored," Ibid., p. A-6; Scott Maier, "Voters Support City's Domestic Partner Policy," Ibid., p. A-7; Scott Sunde, "Constitutional Amendments Unnecessary, Voters Decide," Ibid., p. A-7; Official Returns of the State General Election, November 6, 1990 (Olympia: Washington Secretary of State, 1992); Robert T. Nelson, "Initiative 35 Opponents Bracing for a Tough Fight," The Seattle Times, September 7, 1990, p. B-6; Carol M. Ostrom, "Voters May Decide 'Domestic Partners' Policy," Ibid., April 1, 1990, p. B-8; Robert T. Nelson, "'Unmarried Partners' Can Now Get Benefits," Ibid., March 1, 1990, p. B-1; Robert T. Nelson, "Unwed-Partner Benefits Going into Effect Tonight," Ibid., September 16, 1989, p. A-12; Blake Morrison, "Need Medical Insurance? Matchmaker Offers Help," Ibid., August 8, 1989, p. A-1; Robert T. Nelson, "Seattle Initiative 35 – Domestic Partner Laws Survive Challenge," Ibid., November 7, 1990, p. B-7; Phyllis Windfield, "Archdiocese Silent on Init. 35," Ibid., November 3, 1990, p. C-8; Scott Maier, "Voters Support City's Domestic Partner Policy," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 7, 1990, p. A-7; Scott Maier, "Partner Issue Stirs Emotions," October 31, 1990, p. B-2; Kathy George, "Tacoma Rejects Gay Rights Law for Second Time," Ibid., November 7, 1989, p. A-8; Mary Rothschild, "Voters Turning Thumbs Down on Open-space Plan," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 7, 1990, p. A-6; Mary Rothschild, "Accusations Fly Over Open-space Tax Plan," Ibid., October 29, 1990, p. B2; Ibid., November 7, 1990, p. A-1; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "House Speaker Joe King persuades Senate Majority Leader Jeannette Hayner to join him in committing to strengthen growth-management legislation on September 28, 1990" (by Kit Oldham), http://historylink.org/ (accessed November 6, 2017).
Note: This essay was revised and corrected on November 6, 2017, and incorporates material from two other essays, now deleted, on the same election.

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