Backed by Big Oil, Opponents of Washington’s Proposed Carbon Fee Claim Latino Businesses Support Them—Except They Don’t

Read time: 5 mins
Washington I-1631

With Washington State voters poised to put a price on carbon pollution, the oil and gas industry has made history to keep the ballot measure, Initiative 1631, from passing. The opposition campaign, funded with more than $30 million primarily from out-of-state oil and gas companies, also distributed bilingual flyers listing Latino businesses that recommended voting “no” on I-1631.

The only problem, however, is that a dozen Latino businesses say they never agreed to this, according to the Yes on 1631 campaign.

At a press conference a week before voting closes, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who endorsed the initiative, said, “I’m not sure how low a campaign can go, but this is pretty low. It’s very disappointing.” And a recent change in state law means his office has less power to investigate this possible campaign violation.

Kind of but not Quite a Carbon Tax

The initiative itself, crafted by tribal, labor, environmental, social, and racial-justice groups, would place a fee on carbon emissions from on-road fuels and “large emitters” like refineries and electric utilities. BP, the biggest single donor to the opposition, has a large refinery in northwest Washington, and other donors include Phillips 66, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, Koch Industries, and the Western States Petroleum Association.

Starting at $15 per metric ton, the fee would rise $2 per ton per year until the state reaches its 2035 goal for greenhouse gas emissions. Because I-1631 specifies a “fee” and not a “tax,” the billions I-1631 would raise would not go straight to the state’s general fund. Instead they would go toward clean energy and energy-efficiency investments, natural resource projects, and job training and assistance for communities to transition away from fossil fuels.

Tribes and communities most impacted by pollution will have a say in and access to certain portions of the funds.

Businesses Say No to the No Campaign

On October 30, proponents of the measure accused the oil industry-backed opposition of misleading a number of Latino businesses into endorsing the No campaign.

The controversy erupted when the Yes campaign learned about the Spanish-language mailers saying to vote “no” on I-1631 and, after contacting the businesses on it, found several who said they never approved being listed. According to the Yes campaign, a dozen of the businesses said they either had not given their consent to be used in the mailer, do not endorse the No campaign, or actually support voting “yes.”

The No on 1631 campaign told DeSmog that “each and every business, organization, and individual listed in our mailers and campaign materials has provided a signed statement of their opposition to 1631 as well as written authorization for our campaign to list them publicly as part of our coalition.”

Nick Abraham of the Yes campaign told DeSmog, “They’ve made it clear they are willing to say, pay, and do anything to stop this initiative. They've broken the record for the most money in Washington state history and are spending it on outright lying to voters trying to fool them into thinking they have local diverse support.”

Some businesses interviewed by The Seattle Times acknowledged they had signed a paper, but said they did not expect to be on a mailer and that they thought they were signing something about a sugary-drink tax (presumably referring to a separate but similarly labeled Washington ballot measure, I-1634). The Seattle Times reviewed the consent papers signed by the businesses, DeSmog reviewed one as well.

One business owner, Cesar Lara, of Seattle’s Taqueria las Delicias, told The Seattle Times, “I don’t have any knowledge that they were using the name of my company … We need to put a stop to this.”

Another owner told Northwest Public Broadcasting: “At no point did I approve a ‘no’ on that initiative. I don’t understand why it says I said no.”

Change in State Power to Investigate Campaign Violations

A new state law, passed earlier in the year, has restricted Washington Attorney General Ferguson’s power to investigate the matter. That law stripped the Office of the Attorney General of the power to independently launch campaign finance investigations. Two years ago Ferguson took the Grocery Manufacturers Association to trial for intentionally violating the state’s campaign finance law, resulting in the largest campaign finance penalty in U.S. history — $18 million.

The bill that restricted the Attorney General’s powers was introduced by Democrat Zack Hudgins in January and the final bill got bi-partisan support after chair of the Washington State House Republican Caucus, Matt Shea, added an amendment. It fundamentally changed the way campaign finance violations are dealt with in the state.

Complaints now must be filed to the PDC, which then decides how to proceed, including whether or not to refer a complaint to the Attorney General. The amendment added by Shea limited the Attorney General’s campaign finance enforcement powers to complaints that the PDC refers to it.

According to an Attorney General spokesperson, the office’s chief of staff testified against the bill and the office asked Governor Jay Inslee to veto the bill.

In August, Shea, who drafted the amendment, was caught falsely claiming he had been endorsed by a local deputy sheriff’s association. According to the PDC, no campaign finance complaints have been filed against Shea about this incident.

A PDC spokesperson confirmed to DeSmog that a complaint against the No on 1631 committee was filed with the office this week “about a mailer the committee sent listing certain businesses as offering their support” and reported that the PDC has “yet to open a case on that complaint.”

If the PDC does find cause to open a case, it could take up to 90 days to resolve.

The mailer controversy is not the only one surrounding the No campaign. The state’s previous attorney general, Robert McKenna, who now represents Chevron Oil, which has contributed a half million to fighting I-1631, failed to disclose this fact in his recent appearance in a “No on I-1631” TV ad.

Main image: I-1631on Washington's mail-in ballot. Credit: DeSmog

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