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Influence Watch: Farmers go old-school on worker OT; Black-box campaign pushes clean fuel standard
This is the time of year when heavy pressure comes down on the Legislature. Tactics, old-school and new-school, get deployed. In the spirit of being an equal-opportunity pain in the ass across the political spectrum, we’ll take a look at one of each.
For old-school, take a look at page A7 of Wednesday‘s edition of The Seattle Times. What? You don’t have the hard copy lying on your desk?Oh, OK, you can go look at the electronic version of the hard copy here. There you’ll find a somewhat confusing full-page ad with this headline:
The ad targets Sens. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, and Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, over the switcheroo they pulled earlier this session on Republican Sen. Curtis King of Yakima, which we wrote about in the second item of the Feb. 16 Observer.
To review: The original Senate Bill 5172 was prompted by a Washington Supreme Court ruling that the part of Washington’s minimum wage law that exempts agriculture from overtime doesn’t apply to dairy workers. The court didn’t address the issue of whether the workers could seek overtime retroactively to 2017.
King was trying to protect the dairies against big claims for unpaid back overtime. But Saldaña and Keiser, the chair of the Senate Labor, Commerce and Tribal Relations Committee and a longtime friend of organized labor, essentially reversed the intent of the bill to make it easier to bring such claims. Then they went ahead and eliminated the exemption for agriculture altogether. King, as you might imagine, was somewhat gobsmacked.
Back to the ad in the Times: It purports to speak for the state’s farmworkers, who apparently rejoice in not getting paid time and a half for working more than 40 hours in a week. From the actual copy of the ad:
“As farmworkers we love working hard on farms. The work provides us dignity and it is our choice to work more than 40 hours per week.”
But of course, the ad isn’t from the farmworkers, it’s from the farmers themselves, who are justifiably freaked out about having to pay a bunch of back overtime to folks who milked cows over the past few years. After all, all that milk has long since been sold, and they can’t go back and charge more for it. An even larger cohort of farmers is no doubt freaked out about the prospect of paying overtime in the future, and worried that higher labor costs would put them out of business, which would in fact cost farmworker jobs.But “save farmers’ profits” doesn’t roll off the tongue like “save farmworkers’ jobs.”
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If you read the fine print of the ad, you’ll see that it comes from Save Family Farming, which describes itself as the “unified voice of Washington’s family farmers.” Much of the site is devoted to this issue. Elsewhere on the site, they spend a lot of ink defending agriculture’s dubious record of compliance with various clean air and water laws.Nowhere on the site does it say who their members are or where they get the money to run full-page ads in the Times.
In any case, if Saldaña and Keiser still read the Times in hard copy, I’m sure they slapped their foreheads and got right to work restoring King’s bill in full. More seriously, the bill is currently in the Senate Rules Committee, and Saldaña declined to comment because negotiations are ongoing.
In more contemporary persuasion techniques, a black-box campaign for the clean fuel standard
Your correspondent was perusing a story in The New York Times about voter suppression legislation in Georgia this week when he was presented with this nicely topical display ad in the midst of the copy.
We wrote at length about the bill in question, House Bill 1091, AKA the clean fuel standard, in Monday’s edition of the Observer. One of the biggest priorities this year for Gov. Jay Inslee and majority Democrats in the Legislature, it passed the House on Saturday and faces a tougher road in the Senate, where it has died in each of the past two years.
So well done, ad-targeting robots. The ad leads here, which on first look is an entirely standard advocacy microsite, a purpose-built web page designed to build awareness of the issue and support for the bill. Some are designed to drive messaging, usually a form letter, directly to lawmakers. This one is built to harvest the contact information of people who support the idea of clean fuels. There’s also an active and combative Twitter feed.
Two things jumped out at us about this campaign: 1. It’s clearly professionally run, with money behind it. The NYT doesn’t give ad space away. 2. It’s completely anonymized. A black box. No “about” page. No list of coalition supporters. Zip. The closest thing is the bio on the Twitter account which says: “Washington State organization supporting cleaner, lower emission fuels as a cost-effective solution for drivers to reduce climate pollution.”
A query sent to firstname.lastname@example.org went unanswered, and plugging our contact info into their engagement form also didn’t yield any response.
We’ve found two clues about who’s behind the campaign. The first is a P.O. box listed on the website, that appears to belong to Seattle CFO, which provides Public Disclosure Commission compliance services to candidates, political committees, and lobbyists. The second is an entertaining Twitter fight between the campaign and Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center, who is a vocal opponent of the clean fuel standard. Whoever was tweeting for Clean Fuel Washington kinda sorta cops to working for Big Biofuel or some other player who stands to get well.
Kudos to Todd for “shill” and to Anonymous Tweeter for “Pot, meet kettle.” Better-than-average policy-nerd Twitter shade, both of you.
But here’s the thing: You don’t go to great lengths to anonymize your campaign if you’re proud of where the money’s coming from. You do it because the source of the money would undermine the campaign. Our minds immediately jumped to Renewable Energy Group, which is totally Big Biofuel. But that would be a head-scratcher because they have Washington bona fides in the form of their Hoquiam biodiesel refinery. They’re also part of the much more transparent campaign over at Clean Fuels Work, which includes all the players you’d expect.
The folks over at Washington Conservation Voters say it’s not them, and that likewise wouldn’t really make sense.
In theory, what Clean Fuels Washington is doing is “grassroots lobbying,” applying pressure in the public square to get legislation passed. That should trigger a disclosure requirement to the Public Disclosure Commission, but the lobbying rules make this kind of thing easy to hide. Unlike political campaigning, there’s no sponsor identification requirement for grassroots lobbying ads.
The transparent thing to do is file an L6 form, which provides some detail about where the money came from and what it’s being spent on. That’s what the oil industry’s campaign against the clean fuel standard does. But if the entity behind Clean Fuels Washington employs a lobbyist, they could bury the campaign’s spending in their monthly disclosures as “lobbying communications,” which would be difficult to identify. Or they could just blow disclosure off entirely. As one of our more cynical lobbyist friends likes to say: “There’s no such thing as PDC jail.”
So for the moment, we’re stumped. Out-of-state biofuel producers? An oil company that sees opportunity in the alternative fuel space? (We’re told there are a lot of patents in the vaults.) Tesla, looking to further electrify demand for its cars and batteries? We’re hopeful that some of the Observer’s smart, plugged-in readers know the answer to this one. Feel free to drop a dime, people.
Recommended reading: Making homes toasty warm with rotting garbage
The reliably excellent Hal Bernton of The Seattle Times takes a deep dive into the emerging business of making natural gas out of rotting garbage, cow poop, and other stinky things that naturally produce methane. As Hal notes, gas companies hope this kind of climate-friendly gas can help them stave off an aggressive push to outlaw gas in new buildings and gradually remove it in existing buildings in favor of electricity. As we reported in the Feb. 24 edition, gas companies and their allies succeeded in killing that idea at the state level this year. The problem, as Hal also notes: even all the garbage would only replace a fraction of the gas we burn today.
From our canine correspondent
To be fair, your correspondent only saw it because his 79-year-old father still cleaves to the crushed-tree edition and was kind enough to drop a dime.
You’ll have to subscribe though. And you should. Journalism isn’t free, and if you’re reading the news for free you’re a) kinda stealing, and b) the product instead of the customer. And yes, I know many of you loathe the Times’ editorial page. Whatever. Subscribe anyway. And yes, we’re going to make you pay for the Observer soon.
Some farmworkers did testify in favor of King’s bill. Let’s just go out on a limb and say most would welcome a bump in pay.
Farmers argue that the state’s high minimum wage puts Washington agriculture at a disadvantage compared to low-wage states like Idaho.
Conflict of Interest Disclaimer from your correspondent’s past as a strategic communications consultant: If anyone in the farmers’ camp sees this, they might bring up a scrap between the farmers behind Save Family Farming and his former employer over a campaign to raise awareness of agriculture’s impact on water quality. The Public Disclosure Commission ultimately ruled against them. How did you think he learned all this stuff?
Todd points out that his organization also gets support from electrical utilities that stand to benefit from the clean fuel standard
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