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Brace for an ad onslaught as big money pours into initiative campaigns

A supporter of Initiative 1631 holds a sign referencing the Quinault Indian Tribe, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, during a rally supporting I-1631, a November ballot measure in Washington state that would charge a fee on carbon emissions from fossil fuels. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
A supporter of Initiative 1631 holds a sign referencing the Quinault Indian Tribe, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, during a rally supporting I-1631, a November ballot measure in Washington state that would charge a fee on carbon emissions from fossil fuels. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

To escape the onslaught of ads urging votes for or against some of the initiatives on the November ballot, a Washington resident may have to live in a cave.

Not just one without television or the internet, but without a mailbox as well.

The latest campaign reports to the Public Disclosure Commission suggest the airwaves, social media and mailboxes will be full with ads urging you to vote for or against Initiative 1631 and its new fee on carbon pollution, and for or against Initiative 1634 to block possible local taxes on soda and groceries.

Campaigns for or against tougher gun regulations and new standards for deadly force by law enforcement will also be chiming in. But I-1631 and I-1634 are in a position to dominate the airwaves, thanks to some deep pockets.

The No on 1631 organization – funded primarily by major oil companies like Phillips 66, BP and Andeavor, the parent company of Tesoro – has amassed some $22 million and spent $18.7 million of it by Monday, reports filed this week with the PDC show.

They’ve paid for more than $7 million in commercials on broadcast networks, another $2.2 million on cable, nearly $2.4 million on digital advertising and more than $3.1 million for ads to be mailed to voters. All told, No on 1631 will be sending out more than 9.5 million mailers to convince voters that a fee for carbon pollution in Washington is a bad idea.

The No on 1631 campaign ranks second in state history for spending to defeat an initiative, but isn’t likely to overtake the campaign that spent $32.7 million in 2013 to defeat a proposal to require labels on genetically modified food.

The Clean Air Clean Energy campaign, which sponsored and qualified the measure for the ballot, can’t match the No campaign dollar for dollar, but is not sitting idly by, either. It has more than $11 million – $6.6 million of it raised from Sept. 1 through Monday, with big-name donors like Bill and Melinda Gates – and has spent $9 million of its money so far.

That includes some $4.2 million for television ads in the final two months of the campaign, and another $837,000 on digital ads.

The Yes for Affordable Groceries campaign for I-1634 – which would bar cities and counties from levying a tax on soda, as Seattle has done, or any other grocery item, which hasn’t been discussed anywhere in Washington – could set a record for a campaign that tries to convince voters to approve an initiative. It has spent more than $15.8 million, including $8.6 million in the past six weeks, with nearly $3.2 million on television, $850,000 on mailers and more than $388,000 spent on internet platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Pandora and Bing.

The record for a Yes campaign is $20.1 million, spent by Costco and other retailers on an initiative to privatize Washington liquor sales in 2011. That’s more than Yes for Affordable Groceries has spent, but the current campaign has raised $20.2 million – including $12 million since Sept. 1 – mainly from Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the parent company of Dr Pepper and Snapple.

Ads for the initiative list the Washington Food Industry Association as one of the top five donors. PDC records show that’s correct, although the association’s contribution of $20,000 accounts for only about 1 percent of the total take.

The I-1634 campaign has one of the biggest mismatches in this election, with the opposition campaign, the Healthy Kids Coalition, reporting about $13,400 in contributions and just less than $11,000 in spending. Its biggest contribution is $6,000 from the Foundation for Healthy Generations.

Initiative 1639, which would put new restrictions on the sale of semi-automatic rifles and require firearms to be stored safely in a home, also has a disparity between the supporting and opposing campaigns.

The Safe Schools Safe Communities group that sponsored the initiative, qualified it for the ballot and withstood a pair of legal challenges has raised more than $4.6 million and spent about $4.4 million – but about half of that was spent on the signature campaign and its aftermath. Top contributors include the late Paul Allen, at more than $1.25 million in cash and in-kind services, Nick and Leslie Hanauer for a total of $1.2 million and Steve and Connie Ballmer for a total of $1 million.

It has spent only about $201,000 in the past six weeks, most of it going for salaries for staff and mileage, plus some printed materials and campaign buttons – but no television ads.

Opposing 1639 are several small organizations along with Washingtonians and the National Rifle Association for Freedom, which has raised $455,000 and spent $391,000 so far. Its two biggest donors are the NRA, at $200,000 in cash, and the Washington-state-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, with a combination of cash and in-kind contributions of $144,000.

The Citizens Committee has sent out “email blasts” with an in-kind value listed at $109,000 and the campaign has spent about $70,000 on radio ads.

Initiative 940 would set new standards for the police use of deadly force, and will go on the ballot without an alternative proposal the Legislature crafted but did not properly approve. The Yes campaign, De-escalate Washington, has raised $3.2 million, including more than $1.4 million in the past six weeks. Some $1.1 million of that has been spent on television ads, PDC records show.

Opposing I-940 are several groups formed by law enforcement organizations. Coalition for a Safer Washington, which gets most of its $193,000 from Seattle and King County law enforcement groups, has purchased $75,000 of cable television advertising. The Spokane Police Guild joined other law enforcement unions and the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs for another opposition campaign that has raised $42,000 and so far spent $15,000 on digital advertising.

The council, which helped negotiate an alternative to the initiative with De-escalate Washington when I-940 was pending in the Legislature, hopes to work with the sponsors next year to get those changes into law whether the initiative passes or fails. A council spokesman said they think it will be easier to do if I-940 fails because any changes in the first two years would require a supermajority to pass. Sponsors of the original initiative argue, however, voters should pass I-940 to keep pressure on the Legislature, and let lawmakers find the support for changes.

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