Submitted by Darren Smith, Guest Blogger
The initiative process in Washington State is designed to allow individual citizens to participate in the law making process and collectively to work together to bring this cause to fruition. But is this century old tradition, rather uncommon in the various governments of the world, suffering from the effects of corporate interest and losing its original purpose?
Following Amendment 7 to the state’s constitution the prior year, Washington became in 1912 one of the first states to adopt the citizens’ initiative and referendum process, thus securing the rights of citizens to make and remake their laws, and to provide a check of the legislature. In brief Initiatives have two categories; Petitions to the legislature, where if certified the legislature must either adopt the initiative, reject or ignore the initiative whereupon it must be then placed on the ballot in the next general election, or propose an alternate which must then be on the ballot with the original Initiative proposed; OR the Initiative may be submitted to the people for direct vote in the next election.
In brief if a citizen, or citizen acting on behalf of an organization, desires to sponsor a particular law to be considered by the voters, he or she will file the text with the Office of the Secretary of State and pay the $5.00 filing fee. There are then procedures for editing the document and formatting it for technical issues to be placed upon the ballot and it is then placed back to the individual to arrange for the gathering of signatures of supporting registered voters by a certain time frame. The number of valid signatures must be at least eight percent of the number of votes cast for governor in the most recent gubernatorial election (246,372 based on 2012 election) If this number is met, the initiative will appear in the general election for vote of the people.
On the surface this seems to be quite a democratic process within a republican form of government. Those who sought a greater sense of participation by the people in lawmaking one hundred years ago undoubtedly had the best of intentions but on the centennial of the ratification of the Citizens Initiative, are we as a state truly a functioning democracy as was envisioned that long ago?
One of the most striking examples of this debate manifested with Initiative 522, regarding mandatory labeling of Genetically Modified foods. The initiative’s ballot description, authored by the Attorney General’s office as with all Initiatives read
“This measure would require foods produced entirely or partly with genetic engineering, as defined, to be labeled as genetically engineered when offered for retail sale in Washington, beginning in July 2015. The labeling requirement would apply generally to raw agricultural commodities, processed foods, and seeds and seed stock, with some exceptions, but would not require that specific genetically-engineered ingredients be identified. The measure would authorize state enforcement and civil penalties, and allow private enforcement actions.”
Full text may be read Here (PDF)
The Initiative was strongly opposed by the grocery and large agribusiness corporations; all of which were headquartered outside of Washington State, though they had a substantial marketplace presence and commercial interests in many of their infrastructures located instate. The Initiative was largely supported by smaller organic businesses, a few grocers filling the organic niche market, and individual voters.
The concern for many, outside of just the subject of the initiative, was how what some regarded as a hijacking of the initiative process created for the people and bankrolled in opposition or support by large corporations who they view are increasingly dominating the election process. A large percentage of voters, and numerous articles on this blog, address how legislatures and executive branches are dominated by PACs, lobbyists, and corporate interests more than individual voters’ wishes. Now it seems the last aspect of lawmaking “the first power reserved to the people”, is withering.
If money can be measured of a factor of election results an alarming inequity arose from the I-522 ballot effort. The Yes on 522 action, though a laudable amount of money and signatures in excess of half a million voters to put the initiative on the ballot and to influence voters to support their cause was significant, it was clearly dwarfed by corporations and business interests.
According to analysis by your author of records of campaign contributions for the PACs gathered by mandatory reporting to the state Public Disclosure Commission, the numbers can speak for themselves.
Those organizations FOR Initiative 522 by contribution level ($9,751,281.53)
YES ON I-522 COMM: $8,056,865.15
ORGANIC CONSUMERS FUND COMM TO LABEL GMOS IN WA ST: $799,896.18
LABEL IT WA: $513,006.48
FOOD DEMOCRACY ACTION! YES ON I-522 COMM…: $250,034.45
FARMERS & FRIENDS OF INITIATIVE 522: $100,546.5
EWG YES ON I-522 COMM: $30,432.77
GMO RIGHT TO KNOW: $500.00
Those organizations AGAINST Initiative 522 by contribution level ($33,057,465.50)
NO ON 522: $ 22,009,991.21
GROCERY MANUFACTURERS ASSN AGAINST I-522: $11,047,474.29
The total moneys received through fundraising efforts of these two factions was the 2nd largest in Washington history, seconded only by those in a previous initiative which addressed privatizing of the state’s liquor retailer monopoly in the prior year.
As it is said the devil is in the details one can further break down the contributors to each of the above organizations: (Note: some individuals and organizations made several contributions) The two largest organizations of both for and against are as follows:
FAVORING “YES” VOTE:
YES ON I-522 COMMITTEE: Approximately 5,574 contributions from Individuals, Small Businesses and Organizations located in Washington State which approximately totaled $1,673,214. The largest two were Organic Consumer Fund with $580,000 raised and Organic Consumer Fund to Label GMOs in Washington State with $345,000
Out of State contributors were 4,120 with total contributions were approximately $5,591,157. The largest out of state contributor was Dr. Bonner’s Magic Soap of Escondito, CA with $2,200,000 and the second Presence Marketing Inc. of Barrington, IL with $300,000 totaling.
$598,962 of all contributors for “In-kind Contributions”
ORGANIC CONSUMERS FUND COMMITTEE…: Approximately 565 contributions from Individuals, Small Businesses and Organizations located in Washington State which approximately totaled $40,191. The largest two were an individual residing in Seattle with $3,000 and another in Ferndale for $1,000.
Out of state contributors were 6,533 sending approximately $615,604 with the largest two contributors Organic Consumers Fund in Finland, MN with $213,000 and an individual in Berryville, AZ with $10,000 (The vast majority were individuals with less that $100).
FAVORING “NO” VOTE (Only two):
NO ON 522: There were 8 contributors from out of state totaling approximately $21,937,879. These contributors were:
Grocery Manufacturers Against 522: $11,000,000
Dupont Pioneer $3,880,159
Bayer Cropscience: $591,654
Dow Agrosciences, LLC $591,694
BASF Plant Science: $500,000
(Note: In in interesting political contribution, Grocery Manufacturers Against 522, an entity within its own fundraising pursuits, was the largest contributor to No ON 522.)
There was $71,302 for In-kind contributions
In a rather unsetting statistic for instate contributions there were 6 individual persons residing in the following cities, Seattle, Spokane, Othello, Shoreline, and Wenatchee. The total of all these individuals was $600
GROCERY MANUFACTURERS ASSOCIATION AGAINST I-522
Out of state contributions were from 34 contributors totaling $11,047,474.29. All were large businesses. The top five contributors were:
Nestle USA $1,528,206
Coca-Cola Co $1,520,351
General Mills $869,270
ConAgra Foods $828,251
There were $7,732 in-kind contributions
In-state contributions were ZERO.
What some might call undue influence in the initiative process, the results of observing the Washington Public Disclosure Commissions numbers would alarm any person concerned of the growing influence of money and large corporations influencing the democratic process of our states and nation. Succinctly despite the public gathering over 350,000 signatures to eventually bring the initiative to the ballot (because the legislature failed to make this state law), hundreds of thousands of votes, thousands of individual state citizens contributing small amounts of money for the initiative attempting to bring GMO labeling into Washington State law, over thirty million dollars was raised by the opposition consisting of a tiny number of corporations, all headquartered out of state, and only 6 individual Washington residents contributed $600 cash.
At the election, the initiative failed 55% against, and 45% for.
WASHINGTON v. GROCERY MANUFACTURERS ASSOCIATION
This case involves what many believe to be a concern:
In October of last year, Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued on behalf of Washington Public Disclosure Commission against the Grocery Manufacturers Association which according to Ferguson, must reveal whether or not the organization did a special assessment in asking members to donate for the specific cause and resulted in raising $7.2 million for the No on 522 campaign. If so, they must register as a political committee and disclose donor names. The Grocery Manufacturers Association declined to say if it did such a special assessment. Ferguson stated he believed that the association is attempting to shield members from scrutiny for supporting the opposition, stating “This is precisely the conduct our campaign disclosure laws are designed to prevent.”
Later association agreed to create a separate PAC and disclose the donors and the amounts given by each. The association issued the following:
“In the spirit of continuing cooperation and in an effort to provide Washington voters with full transparency about GMA’s funding for the “No on 522” campaign, the association has voluntarily decided to establish a Washington state political committee and to file reports with the PDC disclosing the source of all funds used in connection with Washington State elections.
GMA is taking this action to allow the campaign to focus on the important issues related to the I-522 ballot proposal itself, and to put an end to unnecessary distraction and speculation about sources and amounts of funding.
GMA has cooperated fully with the Public Disclosure Commission and the attorney general throughout their investigation, and will continue to engage state authorities in a constructive dialogue in the weeks and months ahead.”
A little over a week later, the Office of the Attorney General stated,
“Since the Attorney General’s lawsuit was filed, GMA against I-522 has reported additional contributions totaling more than $3.8 million to No on 522. Under RCW 42.17A.442, a state law, a “political committee may make a contribution to another political committee only when the contributing political committee has received contributions of $10 or more each from at least 10 persons registered to vote in Washington state.” Only two days prior did the GMA report 10 donations from 10 registered voters. Nonetheless, “The $3.8 million in contributions from the [GMA] to No on 522 appear to have been collected by the GMA from its members prior to registering the political committee… These subsequent contributions were not reported by the GMA when it submitted its disclosure of contributor members and the value of their contributions on Oct. 18”
Trial is scheduled in Thurston County Superior Court in February 2014.
One has to also wonder how long the law and its effect would have come to grocers and consumers of products offered in the state if the initiative actually passed. Surely at least one corporation or organization in the opposition would have attempted to delay its implementation within the courts and legislature of the state. One avenue could have been to tie it up in the federal courts by claiming federal law pre-empts state law in regulation of GMO foods or called upon the legislature to override the initiative within the allowed time period.
With all things considered it is truly a sad time for individual voters in Washington.
Washington State Public Disclosure Commission
Washington Office of the Attorney General