The mystery mailer hitting Seattle-area mailboxes has all the elements of a tawdry campaign piece.
There’s a generic picture of a bearded man in a suit in the top corner of the mailer, with a leering grin and holding wads of cash. Toward the bottom is an innocent-looking family. And then there’s the frantic, sky-is-falling appeal asking residents to oppose House Bill 1465.
“YOUR family-owned business and your home WILL be sold by the tax collector if Javier Valdez and Gerry Pollet have their way,” it reads. It later adds that the bill will impose a 40% estate tax for people and small businesses.
But unlike standard campaign election mail, these fliers don’t identify the group or person who funded them. Deepening the intrigue, the surreptitious sponsor postmarked them from Portland.
Mailers like this have targeted at least half a dozen Democratic sponsors of HB 1465 in Seattle, Bellevue and Des Moines.
The bill would change the state’s existing estate tax by expanding the current tax rates across several steps for high-wealth estates, and would put some of that money toward housing programs such as foreclosure prevention and rental assistance. It would also raise exemption for the current estate tax from the current $2.2 million, up to $2.5 million, meaning fewer people would pay it.
But the mailer says nothing about those points.
“It was really shocking and misleading,” said Rep. Tina Orwall of Des Moines, the bill’s main sponsor, whose 33rd District residents received the mailer.
Like the proposed “billionaire tax” also introduced this year, Orwall’s proposal includes a substantial hike in that realm. For taxable wealth above $1 billion, the estate tax rate would increase to 40%.
“It mentions the 40% on the flyer,” said Orwall. “If your estate’s at $1 billion or more, that is the 40%.”
The mailer’s anonymous agent(s) can likely rest easy. Orwall and two other sponsors said the bill is unlikely to advance this year.
At least three citizen complaints have already been filed over the mailer, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), which enforces campaign-finance laws. Those protest the lack of identifying information and the factual inaccuracies.
But here’s the thing: It may be perfectly legal.
The mailer could be sent as part of the state’s “grassroots lobbying” law, which focuses on the debate over state legislation. Unlike election mail, Washington statute doesn’t require a sponsor to be listed on such mailers, said PDC spokesperson Kim Bradford.
That person or group is still required to report the expenditure to the PDC in the coming weeks, she said.
But for now, “We have not opened a case” based on trio of complaints, Bradford wrote in an email, “because in order to do so we need to know who the respondent is.”
The mystery mailer highlights that lack of transparency for lobbying activities, said Pollet, a Democrat from Seattle.
“The first thing I see is the huge loophole in state law that allows someone to spend probably tens of thousands of dollars on a grassroots lobbying campaign without identifying themselves,” he said.
He isn’t too worried about the effect of the mailers.
“My guess is 99.99% of my constituents probably look at this and go, ‘Good for Rep. Pollet in supporting progressive taxation,’” he said.
Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, was also named in one of the mailers. She called it a “bad plan” to send the mailer to Seattle 43rd District, one of the most progressive in Washington.
“I think it backfired,” said Macri. “We’ve heard from a lot of constituents who say they support the bill and they want to report the mailer.”