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Wash. voters weigh GMO labeling; Colo. votes on marijuana tax measure

November 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Gwen Ifill gets an update on two states putting critical initiatives on the ballot Tuesday. Enrique Cerna of KCTS in Seattle offers insight on a Washington measure that would require the labeling of GMO foods. Megan Verlee of Colorado Public Radio talks about two tax initiatives there, one concerning recreational marijuana.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: We look at two states. Washington State voters are also considering a measure to require the labeling of genetically modified food. And, in Colorado, voters will decide whether to raise state income taxes to boost education funding and also whether to tax recreational marijuana.

Joining us now to talk about these measures are Megan Verlee of Colorado Public Radio and Enrique Cerna of KCTS in Seattle.

Welcome to you both.

Enrique — Enrique Cerna, let’s start by talking about this genetically modified food initiative. This is about labeling; is that what it is?

ENRIQUE CERNA, KCTS: Yes, it is. It is Initiative 522.

It would require the labeling of genetically modified foods on to products. One thing that is interesting about this is that there’s a lot of controversy over what is exempt and not exempt. And that’s one of the things that the opponents of the initiative point out.

And they say that — they claim that it’s a poorly written initiative, and that some items, some dairy products, some meat products, others, wouldn’t be, wouldn’t apply to this. Others would. So they think that this is going to add a lot of confusion. They also are against it because they feel that it is going to cost the consumer more money. Whatever labeling that has to be done will be then sent down to the consumer.

A lot of money also in this campaign. The opponents of Initiative I-522 have spent 4-1 over the proponents more than $22 million. It’s a record here in Washington state for anyone that’s tried to defeat an initiative.

GWEN IFILL: Can I ask who these people are? Who is on which side of the issue? Are we talking about corporate interests against agricultural interests? What — who is taking which side?

ENRIQUE CERNA: Well, basically, what you have is, yes, you have corporate interests on the side that is against I-522.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the D.C.-based food group, has lead all of this. They also at one point were pushed by the state attorney general here to — he had filed a lawsuit because they had not disclosed whoever their backers were. They put about $11 million into this.

But you are talking about Monsanto. You are talking about Pepsi, Coca-Cola, other groups that have put in large amounts of money into defeating this initiative. On the other side, you have a lot of people that are, you know, for organic foods, some farmers, those types of folks.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

ENRIQUE CERNA: The interesting thing about all of this is that, on both sides of the issue, the money has really come from out of state.

And so it raises a lot of questions about the whole initiative process here. And — but also the fact that this is a type of initiative — you may recall that, last year in California, $53 million was spent there to stop an initiative that would have put labeling on genetically modified foods there. That initiative lost.

GWEN IFILL: Megan Verlee in Colorado, last year, you legalized — or the voters of Colorado legalized marijuana. Now, this year, they are being asked to tax it. Tell me about that.

MEGAN VERLEE, Colorado Public Broadcasting: Well, the ballot amendment passed last year actually contained language saying that our General Assembly should refer a measure to ballot this year, because all of our taxes have to be voted on, to create a high enough tax level not just to regulate this new industry, but also actually to raise $40 million for school construction.

That was a little bit of a sweetening the pot for folks to vote to legalize marijuana. So, now our General Assembly has done that. They have decided that in order to cover the regulations and to raise this money for schools and to do a few other things, beef up law enforcement, start a public education campaign, that they need to tax marijuana 15 percent at excise and then a 10 percent sales tax on top of that.

So, we’re looking at a pretty large tax burden for the recreational marijuana industry, with some local taxes even being levied on top of that. Right now, though, it looks like it’s a pretty popular measure. Apparently, folks who voted for legal marijuana last year read all the way through the language and support taxing it at this pretty high level.

GWEN IFILL: Is the understanding that a sin tax, as these are called, like liquor taxes are and cigarette taxes are, they’re considered more — they’re easier to pass than any other kind of levy?

MEGAN VERLEE: That’s definitely the conventional wisdom here.

Colorado, since voters took over the power of passing taxes, has only passed one statewide tax. And that was a tobacco tax. So I think folks looking to tax the marijuana industry are looking to that and thinking, you know, this is something our voters will accept.

GWEN IFILL: While we’re talking about taxes, there is another initiative on your ballot that I want to ask you about. It would raise a billion dollars for education. Is that as popular as the marijuana tax?

MEGAN VERLEE: No.

And, again, as you look to history, the state has not managed to pass any kind of general statewide tax increase. And the thinking at this point is that probably, if it wins, it is going to squeak by, but it has a very hard uphill climb.

And, interestingly, all the money in that race has been in favor of the education tax. We have seen millions of dollars pouring in from national education unions, teachers unions. We have seen a million dollars coming from the Gates Foundation, a million dollars coming from Michael Bloomberg, big, big money pushing for this tax measure. But it’s going to be a very hard sell to voters.

GWEN IFILL: And where is the money supposed to go for this, assuming that it were to pass?

MEGAN VERLEE: Well, it’s an interesting strategy this time.

The proponents are hoping that by laying out a lot of very concrete areas that will get funded, that voters will be more receptive than if it’s just, hey, lots of money for education. So it’s things like more money for school districts with at-risk students and second language — and English language learners, more money for arts education, money to put in place a whole raft educational reforms that our General Assembly has been passing, but hasn’t been able to fund, and money to create accountability, so Web site where you could go and see how every single dollar in your school district is spent.

And so they’re hoping that by having this laundry list of things the money is going to, people will feel more comfortable than thinking of it as just a blank check for the education.

GWEN IFILL: Enrique Cerna, let’s go back to Washington State, because there is another measure which actually completely comes out of what we just heard, a Hari report in New York, and which Paul Solman is going to tell us some more about tomorrow night, and this is this idea of creating — I’m sorry — I’m blanking out on what it is.

(LAUGHTER)

ENRIQUE CERNA: Well, let me tell you. I will fill you in, if you would like.

GWEN IFILL: The minimum wage, the $15 minimum wage. That’s what it is.

ENRIQUE CERNA: There you go.

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

ENRIQUE CERNA: Right, $15 minimum wage.

Actually, Washington State already has the highest minimum wage of any state in the country at over $9 an hour. I believe it’s $9.19 an hour. This would — this would apply to SeaTac, which is a community of about 12,000. It’s right around the airport, so it is outside of Seattle.

And it would apply to those who work at the airport, the airport workers, people that handle transportation and people that handle baggage handling and the fuel, the people that handle the services out there, as well as some of the hotel workers, clerks locally. It would boost them up to $15 an hour.

Many of them are just working on minimum wage. It also would give them an opportunity to earn paid sick leave, something that many of them don’t have. If they work 40 hours a week, they would get at least an hour of paid sick leave. So those are the main things out of this.

(CROSSTALK)

GWEN IFILL: This is a local — I’m sorry — this is a local initiative, but this has statewide impact in any way?

ENRIQUE CERNA: Right. It has statewide — it has — definitely has statewide implications, because — and, actually, I think it also has national implications, because, as you know, the president has been talking about bumping up the minimum wage nationally.

There’s also been efforts in other states to bump up the minimum wage as well. So, if it passes here — and the unions are looking at this very strongly. They’re the ones behind this, because they — it’s something that they feel that would help their union membership, which has been lagging, but also this whole debate about wage equality in America today.

GWEN IFILL: And…

ENRIQUE CERNA: And so that’s why this small community has become in — in the spotlight.

GWEN IFILL: We will hear more about that from Paul Solman tomorrow night.

Enrique Cerna of KCTS-9 Seattle and Megan Verlee of Colorado Public Radio, thank you both very much.

MEGAN VERLEE: Thank you.