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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control: Active initiative campaigns have to kick into high gear

Abigail Doerr, campaign director for Yes on 1631, holds up an initiative petition with signatures on it, Thursday, May 10, 2018. For initiative campaigners, Memorial Day is crunch time for getting their issues on the November ballot. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

For Americans who pay little attention to the solar calendar, Memorial Day weekend is the official start of summer.

For initiative campaigners, it’s also the start of crunch time for getting all their great ideas on the November ballot.

Signatures have to be turned into the Secretary of State’s office by the first week of July, and getting on the ballot takes slightly more than a quarter-million valid signatures from registered voters, no duplicates allowed. To be on the safe side, and not have elections officials scrutinizing every name on every line, campaigns need to come up with a decent cushion to that bare minimum, about 325,000 signatures.

That may seem like an easy goal in a state with more than 4.2 million voters, but anyone who has tried it will tell you it’s a long slog, particularly for campaigns that don’t have piles of cash to pay people to gather those signatures or a network to hit up for support.

Last week, the Association of Washington Business made a full-throated endorsement of Initiative 1608, a proposal to require state and local governments to open up the contract negotiations they have with their public employees unions so that everybody who wants could sit in.

This idea, an outgrowth of the angst Republican lawmakers and some conservative activists have about the way talks between the state unions and the governor’s office are conducted, has been batted around in the Legislature for a couple of years. But if this were a baseball game, one would have to say the bats have been strong in pregame practice, but mainly hit soft grounders to the shortstop or popped up behind home plate. A few local governments have instituted such rules on their own and seem to be happy, or at least not so unhappy as to call the whole thing off.

While it is sold primarily as a move toward more open and transparent government, the wholesale opening of all public employee labor contracts throughout the state is a boatload of contracts with an armada of meetings. A few of the big ones – the state and its contracts, major school districts and their teachers, the City of Spokane and the Police Guild – could get intense scrutiny, but many others might get a sporadic look, or no attention whatsoever until something in the deal goes sour.

It might also be interesting to poll the members of AWB, which is essentially the state’s Chamber of Commerce, to ask how many of those captains of business and industry would be willing to open the contract talks they have with their unions to the public.

As someone who has been a party to contract negotiations – full disclosure, I was the newsroom’s union president for about a decade before escaping to Olympia – it seems like management was always first to call for a no-disclosure rule when talks start.

Yes but, they might say, government contracts are talking about public money. OK, then have the big firms open they’re contract talks to shareholders and stock analysts, and smaller companies leave the door open for any customers that might see a price hike as a result of the wage deal.

If the state is going to open the discussions for pay and benefits to its unions, shouldn’t it also open up any similar discussion with managers and department heads under the argument that this, too, is the public’s money?

Or the supporters could be upfront about the fact that this is part of the crusade against public employees unions, which some in the business community feel are getting too powerful, cloaked in the mantle of government transparency.

Pay to play

Although it can take months to gather enough signatures with volunteers, with enough money, a campaign can collect far more than required in a few weeks. Costco and its allies proved that in 2011 with the initiative that got Washington out of the liquor business.

The group that seems in the best position to buy a place on the ballot is the Yes! To Affordable Groceries campaign, which is supporting Initiative 1634, which has raised about $1.8 million and already spent about $658,000 of it on signature gathering.

Who’s going to say No! to affordable groceries, you might wonder? Remember that campaigns get to pick their names, and the title of their initiative.

I-1634 is about keeping taxes off certain consumable products. Discerning which products is easy from the list of donors: Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Dr Pepper. While most products in the grocery aisles aren’t taxed at the checkout counter, Seattle has a soda tax and Spokane looked at it to help pay for police. Soft drink manufacturers can see the writing on the wall as governments around the country take aim at sugary libations.

But Yes! To Cheaper Soda Prices probably didn’t test as well with focus groups.

In other initiative money news, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer have each pledged $1 million to a proposed gun control initiative, the Seattle Times reported last week. It’s a sign that Initiative 1639 will have a shot at getting its signatures if it clears some legal challenges.