Thursday, November 06, 2003

Washington Ergo Initiative Post-Mortem (1)

Jobs, Demagoguery and Cash

Why happened? Several observations.

From an SEIU Organizer:
in a statewide election, TV seems to be decisive. The industry really carpetbombed the airwaves the last week. I rarely watch television but in the few moments I did I saw their spots about four times. I never saw any of our spots.
And the Seattle Post Intelligencer agreed:
Washington state's sweeping workplace ergonomics rules - which survived lawsuits and a multiyear assault in the Legislature - succumbed to a million-dollar initiative campaign....After paying signature-gatherers to get the measure on the ballot, the BIAW spent heavily on a television campaign that portrayed the rules as job-killing regulation run amok.
The observations of John Gastil and Ned Crosby, Seattle Post Intelligencer columnists, bring back a whiff of Florida, November 2000:
Initiative 841 spurred more than $2 million in campaign spending, but after hearing the initiative's full ballot statement, 39 percent of voters surveyed had no idea what its effect would be and 8 percent had it backward ("enact ergonomics regulations"). Given its apparent margin of victory, if 8 percent made that error statewide, correcting that misunderstanding alone would have changed the fate of this initiative. Many of those who described its impact relied on messages they had heard from one side or the other ("It will reduce workplace safety" or "It will cost us jobs")....

The vast majority did not know the initiative's estimated fiscal impact, despite its prominent appearance in the official voters pamphlet. Only one in four voters knew that the federal government lacks similar rules, even though this is a key pro-841 argument. Forty-nine percent of voters believed that the regulations directly limited the hours spent at hazardous jobs, a misconception that the anti-841 campaign tried to address.
One pollster argued that the success of initiatives in Washington was a sign of frusted voters taking back the political process. But as one article pointed out:
But the initiatives aren't exactly coming from the voters these days.

Ergonomics was the only subject forced to the ballot by a statewide petition drive this year. The Building Industry Association of Washington spearheaded the drive, deriding as "job-killing regulation" the rules aimed at limiting injuries caused by heavy lifting, repetitive motion and awkward work positions. The campaign started with a paid signature drive and ended with an expensive flood of television commercials.

Initiative 841, which has drawn 53 percent of the vote so far, marked the second year in a row that the politically powerful homebuilders' association used its financial muscle to force a vote rolling back an action of state government that it disapproved of. Last year it forced a referendum vote on an unemployment tax overhaul imposed by the Legislature, which helped prompt lawmakers to craft a more business-friendly rewrite of the system this year.

More initiatives are likely in the works, said Tom McCabe, the association's executive vice president.

"We've got to keep fighting," McCabe said. "I don't think we're going to stop now."

Among the possible subjects: limiting lawsuits, or even a "dismantling of the Department of Labor and Industries," McCabe said.
Ultimately, what we have is a combination of legitimate concern over jobs, fueled by demagoguery and supported by lots of money. And as unfair and dishonest as that may be, that's the field we need to learn to play on:
"I think what's making the difference is you have small business owners who say, 'We can't take this; this is the ultimate regulatory nightmare.' Then they're telling their friends and neighbors ... who listened," said Carolyn Logue, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, which backed I-841 on grounds that it was too expensive for businesses.

The Building Industry Association of Washington led the I-841 coalition to raise $1.4 million. Randy Gold, a Wenatchee homebuilder and president of the BIAW, said the initiative was leading because "we had a better message and because I think our message was the truth. We can't afford this regulation."

But Rick Bender, president of the State Labor Council, blamed BIAW's television ads, which he said were rife with scare tactics about job losses.

"They probably did three or four times the TV we were able to afford to do," Bender said. "The economy is tough right now. People are scared about losing their jobs."
But this headline gives me an idea......
Initiatives batting 1,000 since 2000

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Every citizens' initiative that has reached the statewide ballot in the past three elections has passed, despite knotty, opaque subjects such as the repeal of workplace ergonomics standards that voters embraced on Tuesday.
Hmmm.... If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.