Why initiatives are economic genius

What else makes outside investment flow freely into Washington? Initiatives are a cash cow we've just begun to exploit.

Crosscut archive image.

The state's highest-grossing liquor store, at 7th Avenue and Bell Street in downtown Seattle.

What else makes outside investment flow freely into Washington? Initiatives are a cash cow we've just begun to exploit.

Last week, Crosscut heard from opponents of I-1098 who contend that a state income tax on the rich would be bad for the economy. The business climate and jobs are a major issue in this election. Will our system attract investment, or chase it off?

Argue as you will over the validity of I-1098, one thing is for certain. The initiative itself is good business. In fact, initiatives in general may be the best thing since earmarks or bank bailouts.

Six initiatives on the November ballot have attracted some $54 million dollars in outside money from funding groups on either side. The fact is, as political consultant Chris Vance says, we happen to have a lot of hot issues up for grabs: the tax on candy and soda pop, changes in insurance, the liquor monopoly, taxation. 

Apparently we've excited Big Soda, and they are funneling cash our way to sway us ($2.7 million for Yes on 1107). It pays to piss off AARP ($20,000 for No on 1107), or pit Costco ($1 million for Yes on I-1100) against The Beer Institute ($400,000 for No on I-1100).

We're getting more attention — well, more cash — than those Chilean miners, and more TV coverage than the network news gives during key elections to those undecided voters who can never make up their minds, who treat politics like they're picking a new color for the bathroom and can't decide between "Salsa" and "Surf."

Local television stations have been selling all their time to big money special interest groups and lobbies at nearly three times the usual rates. The initiatives are a boon for the electronic media. The Internet and new technology might be hurting TV, but these initiatives are the new stimulus funding.

The money flowing in is all "free money" in the sense that it doesn't require any more investment, any legislation, any work or tax breaks to get. It's a feeding tube inserted into our economic guts and it just flows and flows, as long as we look like we mean business. The good news is, it's a kind of a redistribution of wealth scheme, without the class war.

The wealthy-special interest and corporate donors fill our coffers because they have to spend their way out of the trouble we threaten with our ideas — revolutionary ideas, like taxing bottled water. We are the prairie fire they have to put out before it gets too big. What if every state taxed water and soda pop? What if every state restricted the sale of booze? What if there were no income tax havens left in America?

The bad news is that most of the money flows to giant for-profit media companies, and one suggestion (we could even make an initiative out of it!) is that the influx of cash somehow be taxed. If we put enough outrageous ballot measures up every election, we could fill our coffers without spending much more than it takes to get paid signature gatherers to find enough suckers to sign any petition.

The citizen initiative process has slowly become a private business anyway, where entrepreneurs like Tim Eyman make a living going from one to the other, year after year. And despite the fact that the political insiders don't like Eyman or initiatives, the ballot measures remain popular with people, even if the incessant advertising grows tiresome. In the new Washington Poll just released, 73 percent of respondents said that initiatives are a good thing. Despite the disdain of the intelligentsia, they're here to stay. So, let's make some money.

Public affairs consultant Anne Fennessy says that initiatives ask good questions but frequently have the wrong answer. Meaning that the issues they raise are valid and important, and often ones the legislature or the governor are dodging for political reasons. But they are usually poorly drafted, or make bad law.

People who have been in government hate them mostly because they often upset the apple cart and take away the power of electeds and state workers to craft policy. But citizens like them precisely because they are either sticks in the spokes of runaway government or cudgels to spur do-nothing government into action.

To fully exploit initiatives as an economic boon, we need to pick our targets carefully. Unions, the Chamber of Commerce, Big Pharma, the Trial Lawyers, the telecommunications industry, Wall Street. Even in these down economic times, America is a target-rich environment for initiative entrepreneurs. This, people, is the new innovation economy, and a revenue stream we should take advantage of. Instead of merely suffering, let's profit from political division and out-of-control spending, by turning it into a business model we can benefit from.

Let's send a message to the special interests: See you next cycle, suckers.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.