Stateline Story

Environmental Measures Trigger Ballot Fights

If you like ice cream or soda pop, you've probably eaten products made with genetically-engineered corn or soybeans. The food industry is not required to tell you when products contain these ingredients, but a group of Oregonians hopes voters on Nov. 5 will make their state the first to mandate such disclosure.

Oregon's food labeling debate is one of several ballot measure battles pitting consumer rights and green groups against corporate interests.

Utility re-regulation, radioactive waste disposal, and the treatment of pregnant pigs (see sidebar) are among matters on which voters in 17 states will get their say on election day. In at least three states - Oregon, Montana and Utah - "Yes" and "No" organizations are setting or approaching state records for contributions to ballot measure campaigns.

Kristina Wilfore, whose Washington, D.C.-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center backs "progressive" policies such as the labeling of genetically altered foods, says most of the spending is one-sided in favor of business and industry.

"Everybody talks about the special interests' control on both the left and right of the initiative process. And this is one of the really true grassroots efforts," Wilfore said of the Oregon initiative, which will appear on ballots as Measure 27.

A victory for Measure 27 would require "genetically engineered" labels on foods and drinks containing even trace amounts of ingredients "produced by biological changes to the molecular or cell biology of an organism by means not possible under natural conditions," according to the Secretary of State's summary.

That could include soft drinks sweetened with corn syrup or ice cream thickened with the soybean-based emulsifier lecithin. As much as one-third of the corn produced in the U.S. and eighty percent of the soybean crop is genetically altered for reasons ranging from nutritional enhancements to pest protection.

Oregon Concerned Citizens for Safe Foods, which has raised $26,000 to support the initiative, fears that genetically-engineered foods pose an hazard to human health.

Opponents counter that thresholds triggering the use of labels are too rigorous. Among those bankrolling efforts to defeat Measure 27 are biotech crop giant Monsanto and major food manufacturers such as Pepsico and General Mills, who have put together a war chest totaling $4.6 million. .

"This labeling law just goes above and beyond anything we've ever seen before," said spokesperson Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

Dane Waters, whose Initiative and Referendum Institute tracks statewide ballot measures across the country, said voters "have a very soft spot" for education and environmental bond measures. But he said measures that make policy are trickier.

"Unless you've got a 70 percent lead (on the "Yes" side) going into the last four weeks of the election, you're borderline," he said.

With the lopsided financing to defeat the Oregon food labeling measure, several newspaper editorials in the state counseling a "No" vote and no independent poll yet measuring public opinion on the proposal, observers said its chances of passing are slim.

In Montana, two out-of-state power companies that own the state's 12 hydroelectric dams have outspent Montanans for Dam Cheap Power more than 20-to-1 to defeat a proposal that would allow Montana to buy or condemn the dams at a cost of up to $500 million.

Supporters of the initiative hope the measure will reverse the rapid inflation of electricity costs in Montana, which they blame upon deregulation and the sale of the dams in 1997. Groups fighting the measure say it sets a bad precedent for Montana property owners.

A Lee Newspapers poll found more than one in four registered voters in the state undecided on the issue, while the remainder favored the dams' purchase by a 4-to-3 margin.

In Utah, the state's lone handler of low-level radioactive waste has spent more than $1 million to defeat an initiative that would tax waste shipments brought into the state and prevent the company from disposing materials with higher levels of radioactivity.

Proponents, who include the Utah Education Association, have raised slightly less than $500,000, raising total contributions for and against the measure to the highest level in Utah history.

Envirocare of Utah says it has abandoned its pursuit of a license to dispose of "hotter" wastes because of public confusion with a separate controversy over the disposal of spent nuclear fuel rods.

The company has said passage of the waste import tax, which would raise revenue for education and programs for the homeless, could kill its business. It is responsible for the vast majority of low-level waste disposal in the country and far outpaces federally-licensed facilities in South Carolina and Washington state, which levy comparatively heavy taxes.

Among the environment and energy related measures on the ballots in other states: 

  • Voters in California, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and Virginia may approve up to $4.8 billion for water quality projects, land conservation and parks upgrades.
  • Oklahomans will determine the fate of cockfighting in their state, which Gov. Frank Keating has called "one of only a tiny handful of locations outside the Third World where this activity is legal."
  • California, Virginia and Washington voters will weigh proposals affecting the amount of public funding available for mass transit in congested areas of their states.
  • Arizona environmentalists are fighting a purported land conservation referendum backed by Gov. Jane Hull (R) they say will actually open state lands to new development.
  • Lawmakers in Georgia put a tax question to voters that would encourage the cleanup of contaminated lands; a similar measure in North Dakota supports conservation.
  • Alaskans may establish an Alaska Gas Development Authority to promote natural gas projects in the state.