Editorials

No vote? No problem. Out-of-state corporations win Washington elections on green wave of cash

Photo illustration courtesy usatoday.com
Photo illustration courtesy usatoday.com

Sorting out all the winners and losers in Tuesday’s election will take several days, thanks to Washington’s vote-by-mail system that keeps us hanging in suspense — much to the bemusement of the rest of America.

But one outcome is already woefully clear: Deep-pocketed corporate spenders, primarily out-of-state energy barons and soft drink companies, got what they paid for.

So what if they’re from Texas, Georgia, New York, California and Washington, D.C.? So what if they can’t vote here? The political influence of Fortune 500 heavyweights won’t be held back by things that constrain the rest of us, like residency and voting rights.

Big Oil ponied up a record-breaking $31.5 million to defeat Initiative 1631, which would have imposed the nation’s first direct fee on carbon emissions. Big Soda spent $22.1 million to pass Initiative 1634, which will ban local taxes on sugary drinks and other grocery items.

In both cases, corporate operatives shrewdly built coalitions of Washington union members, consumers, farmers and small businesses — then hid behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz, filling our mailboxes and TV screens with scary messages. In both cases, the results were so lopsided that victory was assured on Election night.

The margins held firm after more ballots were counted Wednesday; 56 percent of voters were rejecting I-1631, while 55 percent of them were embracing I-1634.

We don’t mean to suggest voters were wrong. I-1631, in particular, was a flawed measure; while some form of carbon fee is an overdue idea, this measure proposed taking billions of dollars from energy users and giving it to an unelected body with little accountability, and little assurance that emissions would be reduced enough to forestall a climate disaster.

But it’s offensive that our initiative and referendum system, adopted in 1912 to harness grassroots voter power, has been hijacked by corporate interests.

How ironic that beverage companies would exploit the initiative process to sell the illusion that grocery taxes loom on the horizon. A century ago, big businesses — led by the whiskey, lumber and fish industries — were so afraid of direct democracy, they tried to snuff out Washington’s fledgling initiative system.

Of the Top 10 donors to the Yes to Affordable Groceries coalition, six are based outside Washington. They’re all beverage companies, and they account for all but $20,763 of a $20.5 million campaign.

The story is similar for the No on 1631 coalition. The Top 10 donor list includes just one in-state contributor: US Oil and Refining Company of Tacoma. The other nine, a who’s-who of fossil fuel companies topped by BP and Phillips, shelled out $30.2 million to the campaign.

In the drilling business, that would be called a “mother lode.”

Big-money leverage in the 2018 election didn’t stop with Big Oil and Big Soda. Critics of Initiative 1639, the gun-safety package that’s headed for certain passage, point out it was largely funded by three Seattle-area billionaires: Nick Hanauer, Steve Ballmer and the late Paul Allen. But at least they live, vote and built strong legacies in Washington, where they’re known for much more than extracting profits.

Likewise, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians gave the largest sum, $600,000, to another of this year’s successful ballot measures: Initiative 940, which will beef up law enforcement training and change the deadly-force standard. Is there anyone whose investment in our state runs deeper and longer than the tribes?

Corrosive corporate influence on elections starts at the top, in our nation’s capital, where it’s festered since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. Political campaigns are free to rake in piles of cash from super PACS, fueled by big businesses endowed with dubious free-speech rights.

What we need from our newly elected leaders in Olympia and Washington, D.C. is the wisdom of America’s 26th president.

“It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes,” Teddy Roosevelt said. “It is still more necessary that such laws be thoroughly enforced.”

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