September 5, 2010 in City

Initiative campaigns attract $30 million in state

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Soda pop sellers, liquor distributors and warehouse retailers are pouring millions of dollars into Washington to influence residents’ votes on a slew of statewide ballot measures.

Some $30 million so far – the majority from out of state – has flooded the coffers of campaigns for or against an array of initiatives, a process in Washington that lets voters enact laws they feel their legislators won’t.

While that right was initially given to the public in 1914 as a way to counter the influence of powerful interests on the Legislature, this year’s campaign contributions illustrate how it has increasingly become the province of special interests, big business and unions.

“The old purpose of the (initiative) process is being subverted,” said Blaine Gavin, professor of political science at Gonzaga University. “Interest groups recognize there’s another way to make law, and big powerful interests know how to conduct good advertising campaigns.”

Initiative 1107 – which would repeal temporary taxes on bottled water, candy, soda and some processed foods – is sometimes described as a way to help the mom-and-pop convenience stores and local grocers facing new taxes. But the campaign to sell it to voters is being underwritten by the American Beverage Association based in Washington, D.C. The national group that represents soda bottlers has so far contributed some $14.3 million – more than 99 percent of all money raised by Stop the Food and Beverage Tax Hikes, the campaign for I-1107.

The soda industry has become aggressive in fighting any new tax around the country as legislatures and Congress look for new sources of money to balance budgets, said Todd Donovan, political science professor at Western Washington University. “They’ve got a target on their backs because you can only tax cigarettes so much before people stop buying them.”

Fighting to defeat I-1107, and thus keep the tax on carbonated beverages as well as the other “nonessential” consumer items on the books, are groups that stood to lose if the taxes hadn’t been enacted. State workers unions, which could face more layoffs, wage cuts or both if the taxes are repealed, are among the biggest donors to the “no” campaign, with the Washington Federation of State Employees giving $70,000 to Protect Our Economic Future and the Service Employees International Union giving $41,000.

As Washington voters decide whether to eliminate the state’s post-Prohibition system of selling liquor, they’ll be courted by competing groups representing corporate and union interests. Costco, a Washington-based warehouse retailer, spent nearly $1.2 million on I-1100, which would essentially let it set up its own liquor distribution system. Two liquor distributors, Young’s Market Co. of Los Angeles and Odom Southern Holdings of Bellevue, Wash., essentially matched Costco in backing I-1105, which drops the state out of the retail liquor business but requires distributors get between the makers and the retailers.

Now the National Beer Wholesalers Association and the Beer Institute have joined with state beer and wine wholesalers to defeat both measures to sell liquor in retail stores, much the way beer and wine are sold. Craig Purser of the wholesalers association described the two initiatives as “deregulation disguised as privatization.” He said the state’s liquor laws do need changing, but the Legislature should do it because “these efforts go too far.”

Beer and wine distributors are joined in a campaign committee, called Protect Our Communities, by the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents workers at the state stores.

The Save Our Jobs committee is not connected to any of those efforts, nor is it supported by unions. Instead, it’s the campaign to pass Initiative 1082, which would open the state’s unemployment compensation system to private insurance companies. Its main donors are the Building Industry Association of Washington, Liberty Mutual Insurance and Big I, a consortium of the state’s independent insurers. BIAW and the insurance industry, among the heaviest hitters in Olympia, are matched against some other big guns: the trial lawyers and unions who are backing the No on I-1082 committee.

The proposal to place an income tax on “high earners” – individuals making more than $200,000 or couples making twice that – has heavy support from state employees and service employees. It also pits some of Washington’s wealthier individuals against each other. Bill Gates Sr., a prominent attorney who is the chief proponent of the measure and father of the Microsoft founder, has given $500,000 to the yes campaign. John Nordstrom, of the retail chain, and John Stanton, who made his fortune in cellular phones, have contributed to Defeat 1098, as has Spokane’s Cowles Co., the parent company of The Spokesman-Review.

Spending on I-1107 – the measure to repeal the soda pop and candy tax – is already approaching the record for a statewide initiative, and there is still two months left in the campaign. How high the spending will go is anyone’s guess. Unlike candidate races, Donovan, the WWU professor, noted, initiative campaigns have no limits on the size of contributions.


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