Six measures Washington conservatives are pushing on 2024 ballots - Salish Current
January 2, 2024
Six measures Washington conservatives are pushing on 2024 ballots
Joseph O'Sullivan, Crosscut

Let’s Go Washington founder Brian Heywood mingles with supporters following a press conference about state ballot initiatives. (Jason Redmond for Crosscut)

January 2, 2024
Six measures Washington conservatives are pushing on 2024 ballots
Joseph O'Sullivan, Crosscut

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[Ed.: This article was first published in Crosscut on Dec. 22, 2023.]

Since 2019, Democrats in the Washington Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee have used their sizable majorities to pass a range of progressive legislation, from putting a price on carbon to creating a payroll tax for long-term care insurance, limiting police pursuits and establishing a tax on capital gains.

Now, conservatives want to put these issues more directly before the people on the November 2024 ballot.

After a drought in statewide ballot measures during the past few years, the group Let’s Go Washington has now turned in petition signatures for five of its six proposed initiatives to the Legislature. If lawmakers don’t take action on them in the coming legislative session, the initiatives will automatically go to the ballot. 

It’s an audacious plan funded largely by one wealthy businessman — Brian Heywood of Redmond — who has loaned or donated nearly $6 million to gather signatures. The citizen sponsor for the initiatives is state Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen), who is also chairman of the Washington State Republican Party.

Let’s Go Washington has turned in signature petitions for five of the six proposals ahead of the Dec. 29 deadline:

In an interview, Heywood predicted all six measures would qualify, meaning signatures could be submitted in the coming days for the last proposal, I-2124. That one would allow residents to opt out of the long-term care program known as the WA Cares Act. [Ed.: See “Conservative measure against WA Cares Fund could hit 2024 ballot,” Crosscut, Dec. 29, 2023]

 “That’s the democratic process, right?” Heywood said. “I want to give people a vote.”

If all six initiatives get to the ballot, voters in 2024 would see the most measures in a November election since the half dozen featured in 2016.

Dwindling Republican power in Washington

For both major political parties, the stakes are real. Democrats struggled for years to pass a capital-gains tax and carbon-reduction program through the state Legislature, even after they regained control of the state Senate in 2018. Losses at the ballot box would represent major setbacks for those priorities.

The state’s Republicans during the Trump era have meanwhile seen their power dwindle. Since 2016, the GOP lost seats in the Legislature and control of the state Senate, as well as losing seats in Washington’s delegation to the U.S. Congress and in statewide elected offices.

That leaves ballot measures as one of the last potential places for Republicans to exercise power. For example, in 2019 state residents voted both to keep in place a ban on affirmative action and to approve an initiative to lower car-tab fees — both conservative priorities.

The ballot measure campaign has already drawn competing accusations by conservatives and progressives ahead of an election year already brimming with important questions. Voters next November will choose a president, state lawmakers who write Washington’s laws and nine statewide elected officials — including governor, attorney general and commissioner of public lands.

Heywood and others have accused progressive organizations of unlawfully interfering with the efforts of signature gatherers, which was laid out in a cease-and-desist letter sent earlier this month to progressive organizations. In turn, progressive groups have filed complaints with the state Public Disclosure Commission accusing Heywood and Let’s Go Washington of failing to properly file campaign reports and disclose vendors being paid by the group.

In an email, a spokesperson for the state Democratic Party referred questions about the ballot measure campaign to Adam Glickman of SEIU 775 and the progressive organization Fuse. Glickman didn’t return an email seeking comment.

In an interview, Aaron Ostrom of Fuse said his organization would be “very active” in defending the Democratic-passed laws at the ballot.

“Our expectation at the end will be that Brian Heywood and his MAGA friends have wasted tens of millions of dollars trying to drag Washingtonians backwards,” said Ostrom, executive director of the Seattle-based group.

Stopped by state campaign-finance law

In some other year this century, conservative measures might have been brought by Tim Eyman. For two decades, the anti-tax activist found the resources to get the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to put measure after measure on the statewide ballot — and drive Democrats crazy when voters sometimes passed those measures.

But a Thurston County Superior Court judge in 2021 ruled that he committed “numerous and blatant violations” of state campaign-finance statutes, according to the attorney general’s office. Among other penalties, Eyman was barred from controlling political committees.

There were zero statewide ballot measures in the last two years, one referendum in 2020 and one referendum and one initiative in 2019. In 2018, voters weighed in on four measures.

A businessman and member of the LDS church, Heywood said he fled California in 2010 — and moved his 40 employees up to Washington with him — after that state got too progressive for his tastes.

“In California, we had law after law after law that was just picking away at freedom,” Heywood said. “Every single legislative session, you held your breath thinking what kind of stupid thing are they going to do this year.

“Washington has sort of had a reputation of being, even though it’s got lefty Seattle, it was more a libertarian lefty-ism,” he added. “And then I just watched it all happen again here, right?”

Heywood described his firm as a long-term Japanese investment fund that invests in companies there. The business came about after his experiences earlier in life going to Japan as a teenager to do LDS missionary work in Osaka: “I probably knocked on about 80,000 doors in Japan.”

His ballot measure efforts began last year by trying to use volunteers in a push to qualify 11 initiatives, a difficult and unsuccessful undertaking when trying to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures at grocery stores and event spaces across an entire state. “And that was a learning experience,” he said.

This time, Heywood is using a mix of paid contract signature gatherers and volunteers to staff the overall effort. Because he isn’t a lawmaker or a lawyer, Heywood said he chose to back initiatives that were drafted by Walsh, who has been in the Legislature since 2017.

Once the Dec. 29 deadline passes, the secretary of state’s office will begin a check to make sure there are 324,516 valid signatures from Washington voters in the submitted petitions, according to spokesperson Derrick Nunnally.

As initiatives to the Legislature, the Let’s Go Washington proposals would first go to state lawmakers, who begin the 60-day legislative session on Jan. 8. Legislators can approve them, which is not likely in the Democratic-held state House and Senate. If lawmakers take no action, the measures go onto the November ballot. If lawmakers pass an alternative policy, both the original ballot measure and the alternative go onto the election ballot.

Tax challenges

On Thursday, Let’s Go Washington turned in signatures for its proposed ban on income taxes and for a repeal of the capital gains tax, which this spring survived a legal challenge that reached the state Supreme Court.

Passed in 2021, that law imposes a 7% tax on profits from the sale of bonds, stocks and some other capital assets that are greater than $250,000.

In its first year, the tax brought in close to $900 million, the state Department of Revenue said last month.

The money is earmarked for K–12 education, early learning, child-care and school construction.

Treasure Mackley, executive director of Invest in WA Now, an organization that worked to pass the capital gains tax and defend it from legal challenges, predicted that voters would uphold the new law.

“We believe it’s really out of touch, it’s out of touch with Washingtonians,” Mackley said, adding, “This initiative to the Legislature is taking away much-needed funds … for the schools and for children.”

In November, Let’s Go Washington turned in its first set of petition signatures, for the proposed repeal of Washington’s cap-and-invest carbon-reduction law.

Passed in 2021, the Climate Commitment Act sets a price on carbon, and businesses that create lower emissions than the credits allowed for them can then sell those credits to other businesses that are cutting greenhouse gases more slowly. Conservatives have railed against the law, contending that it is the reason for Washington’s high gas prices.

“They were the easiest ones to get signatures for, sure,” Heywood said. “People were really, really mad about cap-and-trade.”

Asked what he would do to stop climate change, Heywood demurred: “I’m not running for anything, I’m saying this doesn’t solve it.”

In a news conference earlier this month announcing his new proposed budgets ahead of the January legislative session, Inslee defended the carbon-reduction law. A longtime proponent of fighting climate change who even ran for president in 2020 largely on that issue, Inslee defended the law.

“Some folks think this law is just about raising dollars,” Inslee said. “No, it is about limiting pollution, it limits the amount of dirty diesel smoke and dirty smoke coming out of smokestacks that go into our kids’ lungs, that are causing asthma and respiratory distress.”

Conservatives have also chafed at the 2021 law restricting police pursuits. Democratic lawmakers and Inslee last year loosened that new law in a follow-up bill, but some have contended the restrictions are still too tight.

Likewise, Republicans have pushed hard against the WA Cares Act, which lawmakers had to delay and revise after first passing it in 2019. The law is designed to help eligible residents afford respite care or in-home nursing care, meal deliveries and other home-care related services. Since its passage, Republicans have raised concerns about the size of the .58% payroll tax and the program’s long-term solvency, among other critiques, and have called for it to be repealed.

Heywood and others have contended that progressives have interfered with their signature-gathering efforts in an attempt to keep his proposals off the ballot. Those concerns were outlined in a cease-and-desist letter sent earlier this month by Rob McKenna to Fuse and SEIU 775.

A former state attorney general, McKenna wrote that he had evidence that those two organizations and others “are engaged in a coordinated intimidation campaign against contractors for our client, Let’s Go Washington, and voters, to disrupt and prevent the collection of voter signatures for several initiative petitions in Washington.”

McKenna cited an email he obtained from Ostrom, of Fuse, calling on the organization’s members to “make sure [the signature collectors] don’t succeed” as well as a phone line purportedly set up by the organization for the “public to call to report the locations and other details concerning signature gathering .…”

In an email, Ostrom responded to McKenna’s letter: “We will not let a multimillionaire and his MAGA Republican sponsors intimidate us from educating voters about the content and impact of these destructive initiatives.

“Backwards Washington is a deceitful campaign to buy giant tax cuts for the ultrawealthy,” Ostrom continued. “Their initiatives take direct aim at our kids and their schools, working families trying to afford childcare, seniors who benefit from long-term care, and clean energy solutions that tackle the growing climate crisis.”

— Reported by Joseph O’Sullivan /Crosscut.com

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