SEATTLE – Initiative 522 would change the law only in Washington state, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the lists of campaign donors.
Of the $22 million raised to oppose the proposal to label genetically engineered food, exactly $550 has come from individuals and companies based in Washington, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.
The initiative’s proponents, although more locally funded, have received $5.8 million of their $8.4 million from outside Washington.
“This is really out-of-state interests fighting over how to influence law in our state,” said Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of Washington.
It’s a phenomenon that has rarely been seen here on such a large scale. But in this unusual year, with several nationally watched issues on the ballot and few big-ticket campaigns in other states, the influx of outside cash is arising in different ways, including in local races dominated by out-of-city or out-of-county funding.
Political insiders and experts said the pattern could threaten the core promise of the initiative process and representative democracy itself: that citizens get to decide the laws that govern them and politicians who represent them.
In SeaTac, population 26,909, the groups supporting and opposing a $15 local minimum wage have spent nearly $2 million, with large contributions from out-of-state groups and little from city residents.
On the Kitsap Peninsula, a state Senate campaign has drawn the attention of a California billionaire.
And in Whatcom County, state and national environmentalists have contributed about $300,000 to County Council races and been answered by more than half that from international coal corporations.
“It’s something that’s happening more and more all around the country,” said former state Sen. Debbie Regala, a Tacoma Democrat known for how little she spent in her 2008 campaign. “And it’s a sad commentary on our political system, but it’s a reality.”
National experts said outside spending is indeed on the rise nationwide. They and locals offered varying explanations.
Sarah Bryner, research director at the national Center for Responsive Politics, said the 24 states with initiative processes are increasingly being used as testing grounds for issues that could be implemented around the country.
“Certain states can be leaders on certain issues, and if you are a person who’s passionate about an issue, you may see it as being in your interest to support early adapters with the hope that it may trickle down to your own state or other states,” she said.
Western Washington University professor Todd Donovan agreed that national actors are using the statewide genetically modified food-labeling debate and the SeaTac minimum-wage proposition “as sort of a platform to get greater visibility for their issue.”
“And then there’s the Tom Steyer guy,” said Donovan, referring to the billionaire businessman who has contributed to a special state Senate election and four Whatcom County Council races through his NextGen Climate Action Committee.
A Steyer spokesman did not return a telephone message.
The GMO and minimum-wage ballot measures could have major economic ramifications for companies.
They are also seen as part of national movements.
Initiative 522 is a replay of a $53 million battle that took place in California last year, where a pro-labeling campaign lost.
This year, the biggest “no” donor has been the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a Washington, D.C.-based food-industry group that revealed its donors after state Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued last month. It has put in $11 million.
Monsanto, a St. Louis-based biotech company, has given more than $5 million.
The $22 million total to combat Initiative 522 is the most ever raised for one side of an initiative election.
Dana Bieber, a No on 522 spokeswoman, said “The funders of our campaign are supporting their customers, who are all in the state of Washington.”
She said the main concern for voters is not campaign funders but how the proposal would affect them.
But Elizabeth Larter, a spokeswoman for the other side, said the lack of in-state donors shows the “no” side doesn’t have in-state support.