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Originally published Tuesday, August 21, 2012 at 9:38 PM

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Out-of-state money chooses what we vote on

What's refreshing about the gay-marriage fight in Washington state is that, so far, it is unexpectedly unspoiled by out-of-state poison. Unfortunately, rumor has it that's about to change.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The rumor is that at least one big out-of-state group is about to pour gobs of money into our debate over gay marriage.

Please don't. If it's you, National Organization for Marriage, then please butt out instead.

I know that's about as likely to be heeded as if I'd asked Tim Eyman to stop recycling the same tedious initiatives.

But what's refreshing about the gay-marriage fight is that, so far, it is unexpectedly unspoiled by out-of-state poison.

The campaigns on both sides have been unusually depopulated of corporations, unions or special-interest associations which in recent years have turned the rest of our initiative process into a democracy-for-sale racket.

In fact, a look at the donors for both the pro and con gay-marriage campaigns finds a political endangered species: actual citizens.

Take the gay-marriage side. It has donations from nearly 9,000 people, the vast majority of whom live in this state. That has not yet set a record for a ballot measure, but it may before the campaign ends (2009's drive to legalize doctor-aided dying had 13,500 donors).

The side against gay marriage is smaller, but even more homegrown. It got the referendum on the ballot after spending only about $30,000 on paid signature gatherers. It did it the old-fashioned way, mostly using church drives and volunteers.

Compare that to, say, the charter-schools measure, Initiative 1240. It spent a staggering $2.6 million on signature gatherers — more than $6 per signature.

That was a few rich folks, Bill Gates and some others, just buying their way onto the ballot. Probably because there was no army of impassioned volunteers burning to go door to door in the name of charter schools.

Regardless of which side you're on in the gay-marriage debate — I'm on the gay side — the way that campaign has been going so far is the way citizen ballot measures were meant to be contested. With local people, energized to fight out important local issues.

It's true the pro gay-marriage campaign also has one mega-donor, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who gave $2.5 million. But at least we know who he is.

The problem with the National Organization for Marriage dumping a couple million into the campaign is that we'll have no idea where that money really comes from. Who gave it, and what's their agenda? Can we ask them?

Nope. It may be our democracy, but it's none of our business.

As the state Public Disclosure Commission summed up a few years back, ballot measures were supposed to be "a remedy for the domination of industry and other powerful interests over the legislative process." Not just another tool of those same interests. So guess which measure is the year's least populist and homegrown?

It's not the one to legalize pot. Although Initiative 502 did get more than half its money from out-of-state drug-policy activists and some businesses (including, mysteriously, 50 grand from Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps in California, which makes that peppermint-oil detergent everyone uses when they go camping).

No, the corporate-lackey prize this year goes to our man of the people, Tim Eyman.

Eyman has shed any pretense of a people-powered campaign. His Initiative 1185, to require a two-thirds vote in the state Legislature for tax increases (which is already the law), has 95 percent of its financing from corporate behemoths such as oil companies (Shell, Conoco, BP), the national beer and soda-pop industries and big pharmaceutical firms.

They bought a spot on our election ballot, as if it were a highway billboard, apparently to reiterate how much they really, really don't want their taxes raised.

Eyman says it's the people — the voters — who always get the last word. True.

But too often it's big money that gets to choose what we're talking about.

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

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