Initiative 522 would only change the law in Washington state, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the lists of campaign donors.
Of the record-setting $22 million raised to combat the proposal to label genetically engineered food, exactly $550 has come from individuals and companies based in Washington, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.
The initiative’s proponents, although more locally funded, have received $5.8 million of their $8.4 million from outside Washington.
“This is really out-of-state interests fighting over how to influence law in our state,” said Matt Barreto, a political-science professor at the University of Washington.
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It’s a phenomenon that has rarely been seen here on such a large scale. But in this unusual year, with several nationally watched issues on the ballot and few big-ticket campaigns in other states, the influx of outside cash is arising in different ways, including in local races dominated by out-of-city or out-of-county funding.
Political insiders and experts said the pattern could threaten the core promise of the initiative process and representative democracy itself — that citizens get to decide the laws that govern them and politicians who represent them.
In SeaTac, population 26,909 at last count, the groups supporting and opposing a $15 local minimum wage have spent nearly $2 million, thanks to large contributions from out-of-state groups and very little from city residents.
On the Kitsap Peninsula, a state Senate campaign has drawn the attention of a California billionaire.
And in Whatcom County, state and national environmentalists have contributed about $300,000 to County Council races and been answered by more than half that from international-coal corporations.
“It’s something that’s happening more and more all around the country,” said former state Sen. Debbie Regala, a Tacoma Democrat known for how little she spent in a 2008 campaign. “And it’s a sad commentary on our political system, but it’s a reality.”
National experts said outside spending is indeed on the rise nationwide. They and locals offered varying explanations.
Sarah Bryner, research director at the national Center for Responsive Politics, said the 24 states with initiative processes are increasingly being used as testing grounds for issues that could be implemented around the country.
“Certain states can be leaders on certain issues, and if you are a person who’s passionate about an issue, you may see it as being in your interest to support early adapters with the hope that it may trickle down to your own state or other states,” she said.
Western Washington University Professor Todd Donovan agreed that national actors are using the statewide genetically modified food-labeling debate and the SeaTac minimum-wage proposition “as sort of a platform to get greater visibility for their issue.”
“And then there’s the Tom Steyer guy,” said Donovan, referring to the billionaire businessman who has contributed to the 26th District special Senate election and four Whatcom County Council races through his NextGen Climate Action Committee.
A Steyer spokesman did not return a telephone message.
His group has contributed $250,000 mostly to attack the Republican in the 26th, Jan Angel, and $275,000 to Washington Conservation Voters, which has spent money in the 26th and Whatcom County races.
Both elections may help determine control of a legislative body.
The 26th is seen as key to the state Senate, currently run by 23 Republicans and two Democrats. The minority hopes to hold the seat, which Nathan Schlicher was appointed to fill for now-U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, and retake control next year.
In addition to Steyer’s money, the $1 million pro-Schlicher political-action committee has received at least $120,000 from national Democratic Party groups.
The pro-Angel PAC has gotten its $575,000 from a state GOP group funded by a national party group.
The candidates themselves have raised slightly less from out of state than has been standard in recent years.
About 12 percent of Angel’s cash contributions have come from out of state, compared to some 6.5 percent of Schlicher’s.
The average for legislative races in Washington in 2011 and 2012 was 13 percent, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The national average was 9 percent.
The Whatcom County races have seen far more money than usual because the council may vote — in two years, or more — on a proposed $600 million coal-export facility.
“If you’re looking at building a $600 million facility, what’s a couple hundred thousand dollars in campaign spending?” Donovan said.
The GMO and minimum-wage ballot measures could also have major economic ramifications for companies.
They are also seen as part of national movements.
Initiative 522 is a replay of a $53 million battle that took place in California last year, where a pro-labeling campaign lost.
This year, the biggest “no” donor has been the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a Washington, D.C.-based food-industry group that
revealed its donors after state Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued last month. It has put in $11 million.
Monsanto, a St. Louis-based biotech company, has given more than $5 million.
The $22 million total to combat Initiative 522 is the most ever raised for one side of an initiative election.
Second on the list for big spending is the pro campaign for Initiative 1183, which raised $20 million. That 2011 liquor-privitization measure was sponsored by Costco, which is headquartered in Washington state.
And third place, with $16 million raised, is the pro campaign for Initiative 1107. That 2010 measure, which sought to repeal taxes on candy, soda and bottled water, was largely funded by the American Beverage Association, which is located in Washington, D.C.
Dana Bieber, a No on 522 spokeswoman, said “The funders of our campaign are supporting their customers, who are all in the state of Washington.”
She said the main concern for voters is not campaign funders but how the proposal would affect them.
But Elizabeth Larter, a spokeswoman for the other side, said the lack of in-state donors shows that the “no” side doesn’t have in-state support.
Of course, Yes on I-522 also has received most of its money from out of state, including $2 million from Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a California-based organic soapmaker.
Less has been spent in SeaTac, but it is notable because of the size of the city.
With roughly 12,000 registered voters and a projected King County voter turnout of 55 percent, the $2 million raised could translate to $300 per voter.
The proposal is part of a organized labor effort focused on income inequality; voters in Albuquerque, N.M., and Long Beach, Calif., raised wage floors last year.
Almost a quarter of the cash raised by Yes! For SeaTac has come from out of state, including the Washington, D.C.-based Service Employees International Union.
But the biggest donors to the $1.4 million campaign have been statewide labor groups like Working Washington, which has given more than $380,000 in cash and in-kind contributions.
The campaign has raised $75 from SeaTac.
On the other side, Common Sense SeaTac has received $156,000 of its $664,000 from Seattle-based Alaska Airlines and $100,000 from the American Car Rental Association, based in St. Petersburg, Fla.
It has received about $63,000 from SeaTac.
Officials from both political parties expressed concern about out-of-state spending but concentrated their ire on different races.
Dwight Pelz, chairman of the state Democratic Party, focused on Initiative 522.
“I think the initiative process has gotten far away from its roots. It used to be a populist check on government excess,” said Pelz, recalling a $20,000 campaign that repealed a sales tax on food. “Now, you’ve got wealthy people paying to get things on the ballot and companies dominating the debate.”
State GOP chairwoman Susan Hutchison focused on Tom Steyer.
“It’s stunning,” she said of his contributions, adding, “it’s a tremendous offense to the people of this state.”
Hutchison suggested outside spending could be curtailed by lifting individual contribution limits. She said the current level, $900 before and after the primary, invites wealthy people to spend through PACs that are not transparent.
But others said that would exacerbate the problem.
Former Secretary of State Sam Reed, who retired this year, said his staff once discussed another idea — proposing geography-based contribution limits — but was advised it would violate the First Amendment.
Reed recommended a less dramatic way to fight outside spending: being informed about it.
“If you can’t beat it, at least know about it,” he said.
Data innovation editor Cheryl Phillips contributed to this report, which includes information from Seattle Times archives.
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or email@example.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal