Big money paves way in battle over I-745

Millions contributed for, against roads measure

By WARREN CORNWALL

Herald Writer

The paving and contracting industries are squaring off against unions, environmentalists and Puget Sound-area businesses in what promises to be a multimillion-dollar fight over Initiative 745.

Industries that could benefit from the construction boom and tax exemptions promised by the road-building initiative have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the pro-745 campaign, making them its chief financier, according to contribution reports.

On the other side, initiative opponents have vowed to wage a million-dollar war, backed by a coalition of transit, environmental and business interests. Though still far short of that seven-figure goal, all three groups have begun giving tens of thousands of dollars.

Initiative opponents have jumped on the road-building industry’s involvement as a sign that narrow special interests will be the real beneficiaries of I-745.

"Initiative 745 is very much not in the public interest, and yet asphalt pavers in particular and other people interested in building the roads are interested in funding this campaign," said Liz Pierini, president of the League of Women Voters of Washington, part of a coalition fighting the initiative.

Tim Eyman, a Mukilteo businessman and I-745’s creator, dismissed the debate over contributions as a distraction from the initiative’s substance. The support from the paving industries comes as no surprise, he said.

But the 270,000 signatures gathered on petitions for the initiative, and recent polls showing the pro-745 side leading with voters, show support is much broader, he said.

"There’s not 270,000 asphalt pavers in Washington," Eyman said.

The donations, however, played an important role in getting the initiative on the ballot.

The campaign committee Washington Citizens for Congestion Relief, a group with ties to an industry trade organization, the Asphalt Paving Association of Washington, spent more than $680,000 on the army of professional signature gatherers that helped collect enough signatures to put I-745 on the Nov. 7 ballot.

That support came after Eyman revised the initiative, forcing him to start over in the signature-gathering only six weeks before the petition deadline.

David Spivey, the committee’s treasurer and executive vice president of the paving group, could not be reached for comment.

The initiative could produce hundreds of millions of dollars in road-building contracts, due to its requirement that 90 percent of all transportation dollars spent in the state go toward road building and maintenance.

In the 1999-2001 budget cycle, that would have meant up to $2 billion more being funneled to road projects, depending on how the initiative is interpreted, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

The initiative would also exempt road building materials and labor from the state’s sales and use tax. That could save $53 million a year in taxes on state and local road projects, according to the state budget office. It could also produce another $50 million in savings for federal contractors, because an earlier state court ruling upheld the tax on federal contracts, because it applied to local contracts as well, according to the budget office.

The vast majority of the more than $1.1 million in contributions to the congestion relief committee come from paving or construction interests, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state.

Major donors from road-building-related industries include the Yakima firm Superior Asphalt, which gave $50,000; the Issaquah asphalt and paving company Lakeside Industries, which donated $50,000; and the paving group, which donated $30,000 and loaned the committee another $220,000.

They have been joined by the broader construction industry, with the two lobbying groups, the Building Industry of Washington and the Associated General Contractors of Washington, each giving $25,000.

One of the biggest local donors was CSR Associated, a concrete and asphalt firm based in Everett, part of the national company CSR America.

The company gave $25,000 to the campaign committee because the initiative would help relieve Washington’s transportation funding crisis, said Neill Evans, the Everett company’s vice president and general manager.

"The whole point is to get money to construction of roads and improve traffic congestion across the state," Evans said.

Did his firm give money in hopes that the initiative could mean more business for them and others?

"Companies are unlikely to support things that are detrimental to us," he said.

On the other side, transit unions concerned about job losses if funding is diverted to road building have rallied to fight the initiative. The Amalgamated Transit Union has formed a committee opposing the initiative and raised more than $75,000, largely from transit union locals.

"It’s a concern for jobs, concern for the public as far as them losing their ability to have choice," said Pat Connelly, financial secretary for Local 1576 in Everett. The group represents Community Transit workers and has given $20,000 to the anti-745 campaign.

If no additional money is added to transportation funding, the shift required by I-745 could cost transit agencies as much as 75 percent of their funding, according to the state budget office.

Environmental groups and several Puget Sound-area businesses have been the opposition’s other main backers.

The League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, a donor arm of the League of Conservation Voters, gave $100,000 to Citizens for Real Transportation Choices, a coalition of environmental, business and labor groups spearheading the campaign.

On the business side, Boeing has been the largest donor so far, giving $25,000. But Pierini said donations from other businesses should be arriving soon.

The coalition has vowed to raise $1 million, largely to finance a blitz of television ads urging people to vote against the initiative.

While Pierini decried the big-pocket donations that have usurped small, individual donors, she defended big sums collected by the anti-745 side as necessary and representative of a broader range of interests.

"Big money’s being spent on one side, then you have to raise big money on the other side," she said.

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