Washington’s Initiative 1501 is being framed by backers as an anti-fraud measure. But the measure was actually spurred by a powerful union’s fight with a conservative think tank.

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Of all the measures greeting voters on the Nov. 8 ballot, Initiative 1501 sports perhaps the least controversial-sounding summary.

I-1501 “concerns seniors and vulnerable individuals” and would increase penalties “for criminal identity theft and civil consumer fraud,” the ballot language says.

To that end, the initiative would exempt “certain information” about in-home caregivers and their clients from state public-disclosure laws.

Voters might be left with the impression I-1501 is the brainchild of consumer or privacy groups in response to a surge in identity thieves bilking elderly or disabled people.

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In fact, the measure was conceived and bankrolled entirely by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as part of a long-running political and legal feud with a conservative think tank over mandatory union fees.

The Olympia-based Freedom Foundation has been canvassing SEIU members to tell them they can legally stop paying dues to the union, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Harris vs. Quinn that such mandatory fees violate the free-speech rights of workers who disagree with union political activities.

Since then, SEIU 775 has lost a lawsuit and appeals seeking to block the Freedom Foundation from obtaining a list of the union’s members, who are in-home caregivers paid with Medicaid dollars under a contract negotiated with the state.

I-1501 would stymie the foundation by amending the state Public Records Act to bar disclosure of such information about SEIU 775’s 30,000 Washington in-home caregivers. It also would bar similar disclosure of information about subsidized family child-care providers represented by SEIU Local 925.

The measure’s anti-fraud section would stiffen civil and criminal penalties for people who knowingly target seniors over the age of 65 or vulnerable individuals, including those receiving in-home care.

Maxford Nelsen, labor-policy director for the Freedom Foundation, argued SEIU has cloaked I-1501’s real intent with its ballot language about protecting seniors and vulnerable people.

“I’m totally convinced that the identity-theft and consumer-fraud portion is just a smoke screen for the public-records changes SEIU wants,” he said.

But David Rolf, president of SEIU 775, defended I-1501, saying it will protect information from potential misuse by identity thieves, as well as “political hucksters like the Freedom Foundation.”

“I don’t think that because you choose to be a caregiver, that you should become subject to endless harassment by anti-union ideologues,” he said.

Unions are sole donors

SEIU 775 and SEIU 925 are the sole donors to the Yes on I-1501 campaign, contributing nearly $1.5 million in cash and staff time, mostly for paid signature gathering.

Those efforts appear to be paying off. An Elway Poll released this week showed 72 percent of state voters favoring the initiative. Meanwhile, there has been no official “no” campaign, though Freedom Foundation staffers have written newspaper op-eds and created an anti-I-1501 website.

Beth Lindsay, campaign director for the I-1501 campaign, said the public recognizes there is no good reason to release the names of people who care for vulnerable individuals. The Freedom Foundation, she said, “is not providing a public service … this is a political agenda they are pushing.”

The stakes are high for unions and their opponents. The Freedom Foundation’s anti-SEIU campaign is an effort to weaken a major ally of legislative Democrats and Gov. Jay Inslee. If enough SEIU members were to stop paying dues, the union’s political budget and clout would be blunted.

Some open-records advocates warn that passage of I-1501 could set a bad precedent by chipping away at access to government records.

“What I am really fearful of is the slippery slope. Once special-interest groups start passing public-records exemptions by initiatives, we get into deeper and deeper trouble all the time,” said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

I-1501 would bar the release of names, birth dates, addresses and other “sensitive personal information” of the in-home caregivers and child-care providers represented by the SEIU. Such information could still be released in some instances to media organizations, other government agencies and to unions representing the workers.

If passed, the initiative also would require the state Department of Social and Health Services to come up with a list, within 180 days, of additional records that “should be made exempt from public disclosure” to protect seniors and vulnerable people from fraud.

The union-dues dispute

Tricia Schroeder, executive vice president of SEIU 925, which represents thousands of family child-care providers, said her members have complained of being made uncomfortable by Freedom Foundation canvassers showing up at their doorsteps.

“We have kids at homes. Kids in situations that range from domestic violence to custody battles to health issues. This is about protecting those spaces,” she said.

But some child-care and in-home health-care providers have taken advantage of their legal right to stop paying union dues. Nelsen pointed to state data showing thousands of SEIU members have halted their payments.

While SEIU has scored higher pay and benefits for workers, some union objectors say they resent the union’s spending on mostly liberal political causes and candidates.

“They pour millions of dollars into getting someone elected I would never vote for,” said Brad Boardman of Everett, who has been a home caregiver for his developmentally disabled sister-in-law for 17 years.

Boardman said he may have been among the first to demand SEIU 775 stop deducting dues from his state pay after the Harris vs. Quinn decision in 2014. He said defeating I-1501 would help other union members realize they have the right to do the same.

In late September, after the state Supreme Court nixed SEIU 775’s final appeal in its lawsuit seeking to bar the release of in-home provider names, the Freedom Foundation got a list of some 30,000 names from the state, which it had requested in 2014.

The Freedom Foundation promptly asked for an up-to-date list. But Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action, a pro-labor group, quickly filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to block the release on behalf of two SEIU in-home care providers and their clients.

Nelsen, of the Freedom Foundation, said that’s a cynical effort to run out the clock and halt further disclosure before the vote on I-1501.

But in a court brief seeking the injunction, attorney Paul Lawrence and two co-counsels wrote “there is no public interest” in the release of the names, which would allow the Freedom Foundation “to intrude” on the SEIU health-care provider and clients’ homes.