OLYMPIA, Jan. 4.—Not that the activists behind Initiative 522 say they want to scare anyone about genetically modified foods, but they did show up at the state elections office Thursday carrying their petitions in an ambulance.
And so another initiative campaign season gets under way. Two campaigns pulled up at the office in the state’s capital city Thursday with roughly 350,000 signatures apiece, more than enough to assure them a place on the ballot come November. Initiative promoter Tim Eyman is back with a measure that aims to make it easier to gather signatures for future initiatives. And food activists are planning a repeat of an effort that failed narrowly in California two months ago, to require the labeling of food products grown with genetically modified seed.
Today is the deadline for initiative campaigns to present signatures for initiatives to the Legislature, one of the routes to the ballot permitted under Washington state law. That means that once the signatures are certified, the Legislature will have a chance to enact either measure into law, avoiding a public vote – though in practice lawmakers seldom do. The more commonly used process, for initiatives to the people, imposes a signature turn-in deadline of July 5 — meaning these two measures may have company when election day arrives.
The signature drop-off, a matter of ceremony in a state where signatures are counted at a central location, offered supporters and opponents a chance to make a quick pitch to the assembled reporters – a hint of the campaigns to come. And as always, ironies abounded. The food activists behind I-522, for instance, kept strictly on message, saying they aren’t claiming genetically modified crops are dangerous – an argument they might have trouble winning, given the consensus of the scientific community that they are safe. Instead they insisted that they want warning labels as a matter of public information.
And Eyman, the state’s leading initiative promoter, was forced to make a case for longer initiative deadlines – even though the initiative-to-the-Legislature process he used for I-517 allowed a substantially longer time for the gathering of signatures, and avoided the sort of big-money campaign the measure aims to combat.
Food Safety a Non-Issue?
Initiative 522 is essentially a repeat of a California measure that would require seed and food products to be labeled “genetically engineered” when their DNA has been modified in the laboratory. Meaning that a vast array of products now available on supermarket shelves, perhaps as much as 70 percent, would require separate packaging for Washington state. In the Golden State, Prop. 37 was defeated 52-48 last November after biotech companies, argribusiness and their allies spent some $45 million on an opposition campaign. But activists rate their chances better here. “We are Washington,” explained Chris McManus, the University Place ad-agency owner who coordinated the signature drive.
He pointed to San Juan County’s declaration of a GMO-free zone, short for “genetically modified organisms,” and the ease with which the I-522 campaign managed to gather signatures at natural-food stores, co-ops, farmers’ markets and agricultural seed stores.
The curious element of the campaign is that proponents say they aren’t trying to sound a warning about genetically modified foods – basically putting a skull and crossbones on products science views as safe. Instead they say it is a matter of providing information to consumers. “A little bit more information never hurt anybody about the foods you are eating,” McManus said. “Yes, you can steer clear of certain items, but unless you know that they are there, how would you know to steer clear of them? Putting a label on the front of that just informs the consumer a little more about what they are buying.”
A development made possible by advances in DNA technology over the last two decades, genetic engineering allows the creation of more pest-resistant crops. But activists have succeeded in persuading 61 countries to impose labeling requirements. McManus said the measure would protect the market for Washington agricultural exports in countries where labeling is required. However, it might be noted that labeling is not at present a concern for Washington exporters. The preponderance of genetically modified crops are grown in other states – canola, corn, cotton, soy and sugar beets. By pursuing a labeling requirement at the state level, McManus said activists might convince Congress to impose labeling requirements nationwide.
Already business interests in Washington state are gearing up for an opposition campaign, though a formal coalition has yet to be announced. Arguments appear likely to parallel those raised in California – higher costs to consumers, open season for lawsuits against biotech companies, growers, food processors and retailers. Heather Hansen of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests said the campaign aims to create a stigma against GMO products, noting that the labels would provide no usable information to consumers about nutrition. “We’re waiting to see if they’ve got enough signatures, but across the board the vast majority of agricultural organizations are opposed, simply because we see it as a scare tactic. We think the real goal is to frighten people away from modern technology, and it is a modern technology that has a lot of benefits to consumers.”
Six Months More for Initiatives
Meanwhile, initiative promoter Tim Eyman is back with what he calls an “initiative on initiatives,” a measure that would change the rules for signature collection efforts, by extending deadlines, defining and prohibiting harassment of signature gatherers, and establishing a broader right for signature gatherers to stand at the entrances to retail stores.
The most important element of I-517 is the extension of the deadline for initiatives to the people, the most commonly used process in Washington state. Signatures for those measures, which go directly to the ballot, must be collected within a tight six-month window – measures can be filed with the secretary of state’s office in January, and the deadline for signatures to be turned in falls during the first week of July. Practically speaking, because of the inevitable ballot-title challenges, backers have a maximum five months or so to gather signatures. And in actual practice, the window is even shorter – most measures are a response to legislative action or inaction, and in Washington state the Legislature generally wraps up its business in spring. Meantime, the signature-gathering requirement keeps getting more daunting, because it is pegged to a percentage of the vote in the last presidential election – now 247,000 valid signatures, meaning that campaigns must gather 340,000 signatures to be safe. So low-cost grass-roots campaigns have fallen by the wayside in this state, and it typically costs $1 million or more for an initiative campaign to hire signature gatherers to place a measure on the ballot. The process tilts toward interests with deep pockets.
“We didn’t push the envelope with this one,” Eyman said. “We didn’t radically reduce the signature threshold or allow people to sign online. We just wanted to do some really basic things to make the signature collection process safe. If you don’t like an initiative, you don’t have to sign it. Our initiative is just trying to make sure it is a peaceful process. When it comes to extending the time, we thought an extra six months is reasonable, because they allow two years down in Oregon – most states don’t have any time limits.”
The irony of I-517 is that Eyman really didn’t face the obstacles he describes. Because he used the initiative-to-the-Legislature process, he had a bit longer to gather signatures. The window for initiatives to the Legislature opens in March and ends the first week of the following year, a full nine and a half months. Eyman filed in early April, cheating himself of a couple of weeks. And by working far in advance, signature collectors were able to piggyback on other paid drives, including Eyman’s own successful anti-tax measure, I-1185. So the drive for 517 was relatively inexpensive – it scored the needed signatures for a modest $300,000.
Already Eyman’s loyal opposition is at work. Longtime foe Andrew Villenueve was on hand at the elections office to announce the creation of an organization calling itself ‘Stop Tim Eyman’s Profit Machine.’ Worth noting is the fact that his treasurer is Philip Lloyd, who performs the same function for numerous progressive political action committees and campaigns. Villanueve said the measure would just make it easier for Eyman to run more initiatives. “This initiative is really about making it easier for Tim Eyman and his associates to do their petitioning year-round, because that is how they make their money,” he said.