Comment: Policy debates need sunshine, not corporate sugar

Less-than-transparent lobbying donations from a cereal maker’s foundation rot dental reform debate.

By Bracken Killpack / For The Herald

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Brandeis is credited with the adage that in politics, sunshine is the best disinfectant.

In 1972, Washington state voters agreed, overwhelmingly adopting Initiative 276, creating the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) and establishing some of the nation’s most stringent reporting requirements on candidates, campaigns and lobbyists. These requirements ensure transparency into how our government operates.

Unfortunately, Washington’s existing transparency laws have a major loophole. They allow some non-profit groups to spend significant sums on lobbying-related activities without disclosing whether a special interest is paying for their work.

Take, for instance, the Washington Dental Access Campaign. According to its website, the campaign is made up of more than 40 organizations “convened” by the Children’s Alliance and Statewide Poverty Action Network. Though the campaign name implies interest in pursuing diverse solutions to dental access, it focuses almost exclusively on one issue: creation of a new type of dental provider called a dental therapist who can perform irreversible surgical procedures with less training than a dentist.

Current disclosure laws tell us that Children’s Alliance and Statewide Poverty Action Network employees lobby legislators on dental therapy. But they don’t disclose who is ultimately behind the campaign. For that, we need to follow the money.

According to tax documents, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation contributed $22.4 million to pro-dental therapy research and lobbying campaigns between 2011 and 2019. Some of that went directly to the Children’s Alliance here in Washington state ($1.1 million), but a Massachusetts-based organization called Community Catalyst received most of it, nearly $11.8 million. Some of that Community Catalyst money also found its way to Washington. In 2019, Community Catalyst funneled $195,000 to the Children’s Alliance and $100,000 to Solid Ground Washington (the State Poverty Action Network’s parent organization).

Unfortunately, tax forms providing this information are filed anywhere up to 18 months after the fact, rather than providing the timely disclosure required by the PDC.

Why do these accounting maneuvers matter?

Although a separate legal entity, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation remains closely aligned with the Kellog cereal company. The foundation is the Kellogg Co.’s largest shareholder and company stock remains the foundation’s largest asset. The foundation’s CEO serves on the Kellogg board of directors and chairs its social responsibility and public policy committee.

Studies continue to show that sugar consumption is linked to increases in non-communicable disease, including dental decay. The foundation could use its voice on the board or its position as a major stockholder to encourage Kellogg’s to reduce unhealthy sugar in its products marketed to children. Instead, it continues to rely on dividends — $145 million in 2020 alone — derived from profits on sales of Frosted Flakes, Pop-Tarts and other sugary cereals and snacks for funding.

The foundation has spent millions of those dollars on comprehensive advocacy campaigns pushing dental therapy here in Washington and across the country. Over the past decade, I have been in countless meetings with Kellogg-funded advocates of dental therapy. Their stridency leads them to dismiss other experience-based, common-sense proposals to increase access to care.

Worse, they not only ignore legitimate concerns about patient safety, but have also resorted to personal attacks on the medical professionals raising these concerns. Last year an employee of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation-funded Community Catalyst publicly implied that Washington dentists’ opposition to statewide dental therapy was driven by greed and racism.

It is unclear whether health care organizations in the Washington Dental Access Campaign know that campaign funds are derived from profits of a company selling five of the 10 most sugary cereals on the market. Or whether its organized labor members recognize that the money originates with a company recently in the news for attempting to permanently replace striking workers at its cereal plants.

If campaign members don’t know, how can the public?

Out-of-state organizations like the Kellogg Co. and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation have the right to engage in policy discussions here in Washington. But they shouldn’t be allowed to hide that engagement from legislators or the public, who may rightly question whether organizations funded by sugar profits should drive health policy in the state.

This session, the PDC introduced legislation (House Bill 1919) requiring new disclaimers and disclosures on certain political advertising. Regrettably, the Legislature failed to act on the bill, which would have been an important step toward increased transparency. Should the PDC choose to reintroduce the bill next session, they might consider an additional step: requiring the same level of transparency regarding grass-roots lobbying by requiring disclosure of funds provided by special interest groups to those campaigns.

The PDC and lawmakers add these requirements and let the sunshine in.

Bracken Killpack is executive director of the 4,500-member Washington State Dental Association.

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