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Originally published October 18, 2011 at 9:16 PM | Page modified October 19, 2011 at 3:16 PM

Danny Westneat

I-1183 campaign ads almost made me drive off the road

I wonder if it matters which side spins most in a political campaign. Is it what in poker is known as a "tell" — a sign, in this case...

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes Read the I-1183 section of your voters' pamphlets, folks. It's not exactly fun reading,... Read more
quotes Read the voter pamphlet. Ignore media influence. Take/Remember a class on... Read more
quotes The obviously think they can turn a state monopoly into a private monopoly if this... Read more

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I wonder if it matters which side spins most in a political campaign. Is it what in poker is known as a "tell" — a sign, in this case, of a weak hand?

Anne Ward, a teacher in the town of Snohomish, called to say that liquor initiative 1183 had become "the talk of the teacher lunch room" at her school.

"It's because of the ads; they're all over the place," she said. "Somebody's clearly lying. But who?"

Well, "lie" is a strong word to be saved for special circumstances, which politics is not. So let's call it spinning, or maybe bamboozling. That caveat aside, there's no doubt who is doing it the most in the I-1183 campaign: Protect Our Communities, the supposedly civic-minded group that wants you to vote "no."

The initiative to privatize the state liquor system is now the richest ballot measure fight in state history. Backed mostly by Costco on the "yes" side, and the liquor distributors, public unions and Democratic groups on the "no" side, the record spending is why you see on TV an endless parade of cops and firefighters arguing about whether this law would kill your kids.

It was the newest no on I-1183 ad, on radio, that almost made me drive off the road.

In it, two plain-spoken folks get to talkin' about how the worst part is that I-1183 would funnel money "straight to the politicians in Olympia." Who would, as they always do, squander it.

"So we'll lose our jobs at our local companies, and pay new taxes for the politicians to waste?" one says. "I've heard enough. I'm voting NO on Initiative 1183."

What's so head-spinning about this is that last year, Protect Our Communities made precisely the opposite argument — that privatizing liquor was a bad idea because it would hurt state and local governments. But now that Costco has revised the bill so there will be more government revenue, not less, well, now that government support translates as "waste."

The groups making this about-face are the same ones — firefighters, the state teachers union, the state employees union — that always argue most vehemently that public investment is not a waste.

I asked the consultant behind the campaign, former Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, to explain this whiplash. How can the same cause make the opposite argument it made last year? One it clearly doesn't believe?

He said the ad was designed for the "conservative male demographic." The revenue increases in the measure haven't gotten wide play, he said. This is a way to make them hit home.

"Admittedly we're hitting on a theme that's out there this year," he said, referring to the government waste talk. "You have to win elections. It's not always pretty."

Nope, not pretty. Not real honest, either.

The campaign also concocted a dubious figure about how many gas stations and minimarts might sell liquor, then broadcast it a gazillion times.

Another of their ads features a Longview restaurant owner fretting that liquor taxes in I-1183 could compel her to shut down. Unmentioned is that her restaurant doesn't even sell liquor.

"She still has a right to critique the initiative," Ceis said. "If she wanted to sell liquor, she's worried she wouldn't be able to because of the tax increases."

Tax increases? What I-1183 does is impose hefty licensing fees on retail stores and distributors that go into the booze-selling business. That will drive prices up. But at the same time, the state's huge price markup on every bottle would go away, lowering the price.

So would liquor be cheaper, or more expensive, in the end? No one knows. Best guess is about the same. But that doesn't exactly sizzle across the airwaves.

None of this is to say I-1183 is perfect. Most important to me: It makes state and local governments whole, a huge improvement over last year, when Costco tried to spirit away the public's liquor business for nothing.

But Costco wrote this initiative, too. It's reasonable to expect that if it passes, Costco will become hugely influential in liquor. Perhaps tilting markets to benefit mostly itself.

Should we trade a musty government system for a shiny corporate one?

It's not an easy call. I bet most voters will be inclined to stay pat. Maybe hold out for a better offer.

The way the "no" side is huffing and bluffing, though, feels like we've got a pretty strong hand this time around.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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