Washington’s record spending on ballot initiatives comes to an end Tuesday evening with the 8 p.m. deadline for returning ballots in the state’s first all-mail general election.
The Initiative 1183 campaign is the most expensive in state history and, if successful, will end a government-run liquor sales and distribution system that dates to 1933. The retailing giant Costco has contributed $22.5 million to I-1183. Opponents are fighting back with $12.1 million, mostly from alcohol distributors.
The liquor measure leads a pack of three initiatives that together have spurred more than $35 million in spending this year. But is all that money getting voters’ attention?
Early indications are that many of them will sit out this election. Ballot returns have been slow in some counties, and Secretary of State Sam Reed is predicting a lower-than-usual statewide turnout of 47 percent.
Stuart Elway, author of the Elway Poll, said low turnout is to be expected for an off-year election.
“Some people are paying attention and some don’t seem to be,” Elway said.
But Matt Barreto, associate professor of political science at the University of Washington, said the lack of interest could be attributed to the initiatives themselves.
“You have three initiatives that are somewhat different from each other, and the overarching issue in politics right now is the economic recession and recovery,” said Barreto, who is also the lead researcher for the Washington Poll.
“None of the initiatives are really going to help create jobs or help the housing market. It’s hard for them to gain any traction when poll after poll show the recession, jobs and the deficit are on people’s minds,” Barreto said Friday.
Perhaps to make up for that, Costco doubled down on I-1183, which builds on the retailer’s failed effort to privatize liquor sales in 2010. Company officials have said they banked the money as a hedge against late ads from opponents. As of Friday, the campaign had reported spending $18.5 million. I-1183 opponents also are heavily invested, having spent $11.7 million.
The rivals make competing pitches, with one side casting I-1183 as a $400 million boon to state coffers and local law enforcement, and the other skewering the measure as a means to help teens get access to alcohol and Costco make an easy buck.
The Washington Poll and the Elway Poll both show I-1183 with more support than opposition.
Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1125 is not faring as well, with polls showing opposition building. I-1125, which would change the way tolls for highway projects are set, has drawn an ad blitz from opponents. Microsoft dumped in $675,000, and Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer of Microsoft have contributed $100,000 each to the $2.45 million campaign to defeat it.
Eyman says I-1125 is needed for accountability in toll-rate setting. It would ban what’s called variable tolling – charging people more when traffic is congested – and require a legislative vote on every toll rate decision. But if opponents’ warnings come true, I-1125 would take away funds needed to pay for a state Route 520 replacement bridge over Lake Washington and raise its public cost.
The third big measure on the ballot is labor-backed Initiative 1163, which would raise training requirements for home-care aides. It is almost identical to a measure that passed in 2008 and was suspended by lawmakers. I-1163 would make Washington one of the first states to license home-care aides.
Opponents began airing radio and television ads last week that make exaggerated claims about I-1163’s cost to taxpayers. A lawyer for the Service Employees International Union Healthcare 775 NW, which put more than $1.6 million into the “yes” campaign, tried but failed to keep the ads off the airwaves.
I-1163 foe Cindi Laws defended her ads that say the measure will cost taxpayers $80 million, a claim not backed by the state budget office or independent analyses. The state estimates I-1163 would cost about $32 million in the next two years – about $14 million of it paid by federal Medicaid dollars and new licensing fees.
NO CLEAR MESSAGE
Whatever happens Tuesday, the message to the Legislature will be complicated. Pollsters Elway and Barreto said the initiatives don’t lend themselves to themes that could guide voters or lawmakers, who begin a 30-day special session Nov. 28 to deal with a $2 billion budget gap.
Voters could decide to embrace the rainy-day fund, get the state out of liquor sales and endorse higher standards and stronger background checks for home-care workers. That could send a message that they want to limit the role of government but preserve core missions of government such as protecting the vulnerable.
On the other hand, voters could see I-1163 as a ploy by its financial backer to buy union membership and the money from Costco as an attempt to buy its way into liquor sales. The backing of a wealthy Bellevue developer could equally hobble I-1125. Voters might reject all three initiatives as a statement against special interests.
Or voters worried by the state’s latest $2 billion budget problem might see Costco’s measure as a small but welcome boost for government finances. At the same time, they might reject the home-care measure as a cost the state cannot afford and Eyman’s measure as too much meddling with a Legislature that already has its hands full.
Besides the three initiatives, there are two state constitutional amendments on the ballot. One may carry a larger message for lawmakers: Senate Joint Resolution 8206, a constitutional amendment, would create a bigger rainy-day fund for state surplus funds – whenever the economy revs back up and sends extraordinary revenues to the state treasury.
The other constitutional amendment is not controversial. SJR 8205 would change voter residency requirements, synchronizing the state constitution with federal and state court rulings.
Tuesday’s election is the state’s first general election that requires voters in all 39 counties to mail in their ballots. Pierce County was the lone holdout until state lawmakers overruled it this year.