November's lineup of ballot measures is all but set after the last voter petitions were turned in Friday, setting up a series of showdowns between business and labor interests with deep pockets.
State elections officials say they can’t remember a year with more ballot questions than this one is likely to have: nine, including three the Legislature already decided to send to voters. Nor can they recall an initiative attracting signatures as fast as some of this year’s did.
The really startling numbers, however, could come over the next four months, in the form of money spent to persuade voters. Contributors gave $8.3 million to support or oppose the major initiatives before it was even clear they would make the ballot.
Each of the six initiatives waiting for petition signatures to be checked might start to look familiar: business groups and unions, fighting over taxes and privatization of state services.
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“Ultimately (voters) are going to decide what kind of state they want to live in,” said Tom Geiger, a spokesman for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21. “I hope that what ends up coming out of the elections is we live in a state where basic and needed services are funded.”
Geiger’s union is the biggest contributor to stop two competing measures that would close all state liquor stores, where many members of the union work as clerks. Both would put hard liquor on the shelves of grocery stores and other retailers.
Another privatization measure would let insurance companies compete with the state-run system of workers’ compensation insurance, which businesses say is too costly for them and too generous to employees.
“Our members just want to see a restructuring of government,” said Jocelyn McCabe, spokeswoman for the Association of Washington Business. They’re “frustrated and concerned with what they don’t know, so I think they’re willing to put their support behind the measures that might give them some measure of certainty.”
The business association is also backing Tim Eyman’s attempt to reinstate the tax restrictions voters imposed in 2007. Eyman said business has stepped forward to an unprecedented degree this year.
The measure would re-tie the straitjacket that Democratic state legislators wrestled out of this year, which had kept them from raising taxes in Olympia without two-thirds supermajorities.
“It’s going to pass in November, and those safeguards will be reinstated,” predicted Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn.
An initiative that would roll back some taxes approved this year has drawn the biggest-spending supporters so far. The national soft drink industry has contributed $2.7 million, one reason its paid signature gatherers were able to collect what they say are some 150,000 more than the required 241,000 signatures – all in less than three weeks.
That quick sprint was unheard of until this year, but the liquor initiatives collected their signatures in roughly the same amount of time. One had help from liquor distributors; Odom Southern Holdings and Young’s Market Co. have contributed $1.5 million. The rival initiative, more favorable to retailers, is financed by Costco, which has spent $840,000 so far.
The soda pop bottlers’ measure would repeal taxes on pop, candy and other minimart staples, which bottlers say have threatened their businesses and employees.
Unions and other opponents say now isn’t the time to blow a $100-million-per-year hole in the state budget, as the bottlers’ measure would do, or restrict legislators from raising taxes to solve a budget shortfall that could reach $3 billion next year, as Eyman’s would do.
In fact, many of them call for raising another $1 billion a year for schools and health care programs by creating an income tax for Washington’s highest earners, while lowering taxes on business earnings and property.
Public employee unions are the biggest contributors so far to the income tax initiative, with the Service Employees International Union affiliates giving $320,000 and the Washington Federation of State Employees adding $100,000. The business association and the Washington Roundtable’s corporate executives have taken the lead in opposing it.
All told, more than 2 million signatures have arrived in Secretary of State Sam Reed’s offices, waiting for random samples to be checked.
A record 77 initiatives were filed this year, 71 of them doomed to failure for lack of the minimum number of signatures. “It’s really been a bumper crop,” Reed spokesman David Ammons said.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics