On The morning of Friday, June 23, Kendra Wiig visited the Initiative 920 website, printed off a handful of petitions and headed to the Capitol Hill Safeway on 15th Avenue East and East John Street. "Would you like to help relieve the tax burden on America's millionaires?" she asked customers, showing them the petition to repeal Washington State's estate tax. Wiig's facetious one-woman petition protest was a reaction to several real I-920 petitioners, tabling a few feet away, who she says lied to her a couple of days earlier. It was also her reaction to the fact that the state Attorney General's office can't do anything about fibbing petitioners.
The previous Wednesday afternoon, Wiig had stopped outside the same Safeway and noticed a I-920 petition table and a tombstone-shaped sign: "Repeal the Death Tax!" As a 23-year-old recent communications graduate from Colorado, who's still bright eyed and bushy tailed about semantics, Wiig stopped to talk about the policy she'd always known as the "estate tax." When, according to Wiig, the petitioner told her everyone in every income level pays the tax, Wiig was aghast. "Is that what you're telling people?" she asked, "Because that isn't true." (Well, it could be true if you happened to be a special someone with a multimillion-dollar estate, but somehow, technically speaking, were in a "low-income" bracket.)
It's no surprise that the workers gathering signatures for the slew of initiatives circulating Seattle this summer will probably pitch their petitions with heavy spin and loaded language ["Summer Reading," June, 22]. But regaling voters with completely false and intentionally misleading information seems like the kind of good old-fashioned hucksterism reserved for the days before nutritional labels and the Public Disclosure Commission.
However, such deliberate misinformation is completely legal. Since a 1998 Washington Supreme Court case, people gathering signatures for initiative petitions can legally lie about what the initiative says.
"The court found that it was within signature gatherer's First Amendment rights," says Bill Collins of the Washington Attorney General's office.
Andrew Villeneuve of initiative watchdog group Northwest Progressive Institute says he has received hundreds of complaints about misleading I-920 petitioners.
Contrary to the whoppers the Safeway petitioners were peddling (on Wiig's tip, I talked to the petitioners myself): Estates worth less than $2 million are exempt from the estate tax on inherited wealth. Farms and timberland are also exempt if they make up at least half of the estate. Because of these exemptions, the tax hits wealth inherited by only about 250 of Washington's richest families each year.
Anti–"death tax" advocates say the tax hurts the middle class and discourages hard work and investment.
"They've turned Paris Hilton into Horatio Alger," says Wiig. Pissed off that the petitioner had legally lied, Wiig took matters into her own hands. She grabbed the top of a plastic storage container and a Sharpie from her house, made a protest sign, and headed back to stand next to the I-920 table. A petition worker first asked Wiig to leave, then called over Safeway security. The grocery cop heard the complaint and told Wiig, "Keep up the good work," Wiig says. Eventually, the I-920 worker's shift ended and both she and Wiig left for the day.
Paid petition workers get cash per signature. Dennis Falk, founder of the I-920 PAC Committee to Abolish the Washington State Estate Tax, says he was surprised to hear the petitioners were telling voters "everyone pays." His PAC paid $90,000 to contract a firm called Citizen Solutions, which also hires and trains short-term signature gatherers for Tim Eyman campaigns. Although we tried through Falk, The Stranger was unable to talk to Citizen Solutions or the petitioners.
The day after her first protest, Wiig returned to hold her anti-I-920 sign near the I-920 table and hand out flyers with pro- and anti-estate-tax website addresses. This was much to the irritation of one the petition workers, who told Wiig to go back to school. "He said I was a communist," says Wiig. One of the petitioners complained to the Safeway manager, who came out and politely asked Wiig to leave.
If Wiig protested again at the Safeway, the manager could have had her arrested for trespassing, she was told. Safeway does not allow protesters on its property.However, petitioners are allowed as long as they don't harass customers.
That's when Wiig hatched the plan to return to Safeway as a petitioner. "I'm not going to get arrested for this," Wiig says. "I don't have to, because I'm sneaky."
On Friday, she gave her ironic spiel to four shoppers before one of the other petitioners approached her and, Wiig claims, threatened to punch her in the face. Someone called the manager. Someone called the cops. No one got handcuffed or beaten, but the manager did ban Wiig from Safeway property for causing controversy. Safeway would not comment on the incident.