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The Associated Press October 28, 2010, 3:12PM ET

Big money spent in Washington initiative campaigns

Numerous ballot measures competing for voters' attention in Washington state have led to a record amount of combined money spent on campaigns ranging from liquor privatization to imposing an income tax on the state's highest earners.

Nearly all of the more than $61 million raised during this year's initiative campaign season has been spent, a large part of it on expenses like TV, radio and Internet ads and direct mailings. The prior record for overall spending for statewide ballot measures was $22.8 million in 2005, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.

The combined contribution of $16.7 million from the Washington, D.C.-based American Beverage Association in support of Initiative 1107 -- to overturn some new taxes, including those on carbonated beverages -- is the biggest contribution in Washington state history for an initiative, said PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson. The opposition campaign to 1107 raised just over $425,000.

The prior record for money spent in favor of a statewide ballot measure was $9.5 million spent in 2005 in support of one of two dueling medical malpractice measures that both failed at the ballot. The "Yes on 1107" campaign already has spent more than $15 million, which is close to the record amount -- $15.7 million -- spent in a statewide ballot measure campaign by both sides, for 2005's medical malpractice initiative, I-330.

The American Beverage Association isn't the only out-of-state group weighing in on Washington's batch of initiatives. The Beer Institute, also based in D.C., along with dozens of out-of-state state beer or beer and wine wholesale groups have donated to the campaign against Initiative 1100, to privatize liquor sales, and oil companies have donated to the two committees supporting I-1053, a tax-limiting measure.

Doug Ellis, interim director of the state Public Disclosure Commission, said the money has increased as initiatives have increasingly become more focused on special interests.

"The initiative process started out as something the citizens of the state had as a check on powerful interests trying to influence legislative and policy matters, and now it's flipped, with the powerful trying to manipulate the agenda by bypassing the legislative process," he said.

Initiative activist Tim Eyman, who is behind this year's I-1053, disagreed, saying citizens are still "an integral part of the process."

Eyman noted that the measures wouldn't have even qualified for the ballot without the signatures of hundreds of thousands of citizens, and that ultimately, Washington voters are the ones who decide what, if any, of the measure becomes law.

"The important thing is that the voters always have the final say," he said. "They don't care which side has more money, they care which side has the better argument."

One upside to the increase in money, said Western Washington University political science professor Todd Donovan, is the increase in voter exposure to those arguments both for and against measures.

"People are probably more likely to cast a vote," he said. "When there's more spending you get more attention. Although there's always negative ads, there's probably, in some ways, more information available to voters than in the past."

Secretary of State Sam Reed has predicted that 66 percent of voters will turn in their election ballots, which must be postmarked by next Tuesday's election. Handy said that interest in the initiatives will help turnout, as it did in 1970, when 72 percent of voters voted on a ballot that listed several initiatives, including an abortion rights referendum and an income tax measure.

"It shows how a ballot measure ... really can drive turnout and get people to return a ballot," Handy said.

Other measures that have brought in big money this year:

-- I-1100, which would abolish the state's current monopoly on liquor distribution and sales in favor of private businesses, but would also allow some large retailers -- like Costco, the measure's main backer -- to bypass distributors. The campaign battle has mainly been between Costco and other big box stores and liquor distributors, who don't want to disrupt the current system, along with other groups who say the measure will cost the state money and hurt social programs. Nearly $15 million has been spent so far by both campaigns, with the opposition campaign spending $8.8 million. A competing liquor privatization measure, I-1105, that would privatize hard liquor sales but would keep the distribution system in place, has spent $2.7 million.

-- I-1098, which would institute an income tax on couples making more than $400,000 yearly, or half that for individuals, has spent $6.1 million, while the campaign against it has spent more than $5 million of the $6.4 million raised.

-- I-1082, which would allow private insurers to offer workers' compensation coverage has spent $3.2 million compared to the $5.7 million spent by opponents.

-- I-1053, requiring a two-thirds majority vote of the Legislature or voter approval to raise taxes, has spent $1.3 million, and the opposition campaign has spent $1.5 million.

The initiatives join one referendum and two constitutional amendments on the ballot, along with races for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, state Supreme Court and Legislature, among others.

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