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Front Porch: Initiative confusion reigns again

As America’s accidental sage Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

Of course, he was talking baseball, watching Yankee greats Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris repeatedly hitting back-to-back home runs in the 1960s. For me, it’s about the Washington state initiative process.

Here we are again. As I write these words, it’s the Sunday before the election in which we’re going to decide the fate of Initiative 522, the one having to do with labeling genetically modified foods. I don’t know yet how it’s going to turn out, though its fate will have been determined by the time these words appear in print.

Dial back two years. It was two days before the election of 2011 and I was writing about I-1183, the measure that would be approved by voters, removing the sale of liquor from state control and putting it into the private sector. I wrote about it then because I was conflicted and found the initiative process not helpful. I was also mad that the measure was before the public again after being rejected voters a year earlier and because I still couldn’t sort the intricacies of the issue no matter how I tried. The Voters’ Pamphlet, online research and certainly those partisan and nasty, endless and annoying ads – both pro and con – only added to the blur. A confusing and complicated issue that I thought might best have been left to legislators and their legal staffs to determine. Isn’t that why we elected them, to take care of the complicated stuff?

I found discrepancies and areas of concern on both sides, frankly. One of them was just realized. I remember that under I-1183 liquor sales were to be limited to big box stores, though opponents said a loophole would allow minimarts to sell spirits if there were no “size-approved stores in the area,” with no definition of what “the area” constitutes. Lo and behold, driving home recently, I passed by a small beer-wine-spirits store tucked into a neighborhood and surrounded entirely by private homes. There was a church two blocks away and a major shopping center area five blocks distant. No big box store that.

So I pretty much don’t believe much of what is said by proponents and opponents alike over what the ramifications will or won’t be on any initiative. Everybody lies or, at best, nobody really knows. Voting on these things, seems to me, is a matter of figuring out whether a yes or a no is the least awful thing to do and which bit of literature or spokesperson seems the least unlikely.

Which brings me to I-522. Unlike two years ago, I have a leaning this time, but there’s such a confusing buzz out there. And I’m still trying my best to warm up to the initiative process in general, which seems to have become not so much about ensuring good policy as it is about advertising budgets. My conflict is made worse in that I embrace the concept of citizens having the right to bring matters directly to the voting public, though I hate how it works out in reality.

As to the matter at hand – yes, I believe I have the right to know what I’m eating, that we already label many of our genetically engineered foods for many markets outside America and that companies already change their labels often with little consequence. But then – the measure also requires the Department of Health (not the Department of Agriculture) to monitor and assess civil penalties, which is part of the not insignificant $3.3 million estimated cost assessment for implementing I-522 through the year 2019, according to the official literature.

It’s the advertising that bothers me most. Just like last time, when one group of law enforcement and medical personnel stood up to support the change in liquor sales control other similarly-constituted groups spoke just as loudly against it. Now we have farmers, former government officials, educators and others all over TV blah-blah-blahing about labeling genetically modified foods.

In one ad, Ken Eikenberry, a former Washington attorney general, calls it a badly written law with dire consequences. Though no longer in office, as the man who was once the chief legal adviser to the state, what he says cannot (to me at least) be dismissed as just so much political positioning. It has some weight. On the other side, there’s a gentleman from Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, the magazine which has provided reviews and comparisons of products and services done through independent testing since 1936. Consumers Union promotes consumer protection laws and, as far as I can tell, maintains the same kind of editorial independence as the magazine. Those folks state in a myriad of TV ads that I-522 is good policy and good for the public.

Just like two years ago when your firefighter trumps my firefighter and my ER doctor trumps yours. Déjà vu all over again. I wish it were just about baseball.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at Previous columns are available at

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