It's no sin to tell a lie

Bob Urell of Washougal was annoyed when signature gatherers approached him at the Firstenburg Center and told him, in effect, “The government wants to tax your groceries, so sign here.”

“The first time I saw it I didn’t think about it,” he said. “Then I got approached by someone who was pretty aggressive. I’m a professional technical writer with 10 years’ experience and a bachelor’s degree in English and I could hardly understand what the initiative said. Everything was intended to make you think they were taxing food and you were signing a referendum to stop them from taxing food.”

Urell isn’t the only reader who contacted us to complain.

For the record, Initiative 1107, sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based American Beverage Association, would repeal new state taxes on candy, soft drinks and bottled water passed by the 2010 Legislature. Its creators crafted it so that it would also repeal the narrowing of a tax break for manufacturers of products that contain meat mixed with other ingredients — think canned chili.

That allowed backers to claim in their literature: “The state Legislature in Olympia has done it again. This time they voted to increase taxes on a wide range of food and beverage products.”

What’s in your shopping cart?

Turns out, petitioners can say pretty much anything to get people to sign.

“It’s buyer beware in terms of what sponsors say about their initiatives and how they characterize them,” said Dave Ammons,” former AP chief political writer and now chief spokesman for Secretary of State Sam Reed.

“Freedom of political expression is such that government cannot regulate it per se,” Ammons said. “The expectation is that before you sign a petition, you will fully understand what’s in it and avail yourselves of opportunities to inform yourself.”

The state does carefully review ballot titles and the text of petitions for the ballot, but campaigns can slap whatever headlines they want on them.

One thing Mr. Urell got wrong in a letter to the editor of The Columbian: He assumed that initiative king Tim Eyman is behind I-1107. Actually, no. Eyman did submit paperwork to sponsor not one but two similar repeal measures. But when the bottlers stepped up, with $1 million to spend on overturning the new taxes, he gladly stepped aside.

“It was a great relief,” Eyman said. “Now we can focus all our attention on I-1053,” which would reinstate a requirement that every tax increase must pass both chambers of the Legislature by a two-thirds vote.

Still, Eyman couldn’t resist commenting on the “tax your groceries” ploy.

“To me it’s not remotely misleading to say it’s a tax on groceries,” he said. He noted that another intiative in circulation, which would levy an income tax on the wealthy, “is being presented as a state property tax reduction.”

“I would argue it’s more misleading to say the income tax is a property tax reduction than to say that these items are food,” he quipped.

Sponsors of I-1107 won’t be working the streets much longer. They say they have gathered 340,000 signatures, about 100,000 more than they need. They have an appointment to turn them in to the Secretary of State this Friday.

Kathie Durbin

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