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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

BIAW hoping to pack State Supreme Court with handpicked candidates this fall

Have you ever heard of the Building Industry Association of Washington?

If you're a regular reader of the Official Blog, and or active in Washington State politics, you've doubtless heard of the BIAW and know of their reputation.

If you aren't familiar with the BIAW, here's a primer to explain who they are, what their agenda is, why they're a threat, and why they want to stack the state Supreme Court.

The BIAW is an association of homebuilders headquartered in Olympia, not far from the Capitol Campus. It has about eleven thousand members or so, and deep pockets (more on that in a few paragraphs).

Its leadership is comprised of people who are the very definition of corporate cons - the oldest Republican constituency group. Corporate cons, as Markos and Jerome noted in their book Crashing the Gate:
...seek to craft a government friendly to unfettered, unregulated capitalism, not to mention a government that provides generous subsidies and a steady stream of lucrative contracts to further line their pockets - codifying the culture of corruption into the nation's laws.
The BIAW is the most aggressive, and the most ideological, right wing lobby in the Evergreen State. They despise regulation - everything from environmental laws to ergonomics rules.

The BIAW has used the initiative process repeatedly to get voters to repeal worker and environmental protection legislation it opposes. For example, Initiative 841 in 2003.

They are also partisan Republicans. They heavily supported Dino Rossi for Governor in 2004, dumping millions into the race, and stooped to playing dirty tricks on voters last year on Rossi's behalf. The BIAW also sued earlier this year to stop Puget Sound orcas from being listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

But where do they get their money from?

The following is from an article in Eastside Weekly that ran way back in 1997. It explains how the BIAW operates, and how its financial trough works. Emphasis and whatever is in brackets is mine.
The irony at the heart of the BIAW is that an organization so virulently anti-government - and so vigorously supportive of free enterprise - should owe much of its power and success to a government run, monopoly business. Yet that is, in fact, the case.

The BIAW attracts much of its membership, and draws much of its money, from an alliance with the state workers' compensation insurance program. This program is, by the BIAW's own account, its No. 1 recruiting tool. It also provides [the] BIAW with a significant cash windfall [which is used to finance political activity].

Every employer has to carry workers' compensation insurance, which pays for the cost of workplace injuries. In most states, workers' comp coverage is sold by private companies, just like auto or health insurance. But in Washington, though, workers' comp is run by the state, through the Department of Labor and Industries, which collects the premiums and pays claims.

For companies in the dangerous business of home construction, workers' comp premiums can be one of their most noxious costs. Rates for roofers, for instance, are more than $5 per hour of work.

The BIAW offers a way to get some of this money back. Under the state's "retrospective rating" program, the group's members can get a refund if their claims over the course of the year turn out to be less than the premiums they paid. For a safe employer, this program can translate into hundreds, even thousands of dollars in refunds each year.

But the program creates some resentment for builders who aren't politically in tune with the BIAW's [leadership]. "It's a major scam," says Steve Fradkin, co-owner of Fradkin Mittendorf Fine Construction in Seattle. "We hate the fact that some of our Master Builders money goes to them." Fradkin complains that in order to have an opportunity for a refund from the state, he has to be part of a lobbying organization that sends "Craswell for Governor" brochures for him to stuff in his employees' paychecks.

[Ellen Craswell was the GOP nominee for Governor in 1996. An extremist, she lost in a landslide to Gary Locke, who went on to serve two terms before being succeeded by Gov. Christine Gregoire in 2004.]

(In fact, a builder can participate in the state's "retro" problem on their own but it's highly risky to do so. One year of heavy losses could wipe out a small business, defeating the whole purpose of insurance).

The BIAW charges a fairly low upfront fee - 1 percent of premiums - for managing the program. That money - almost $1 million a year - pays for about a dozen staffers who help manage the claims and provide safety training. But programs administrator Tom Kwieciak says, "We really don't even break even on the 1 percent."

So the BIAW pockets a sizable chunk of the workers' comp money as well. The BIAW keeps 10 percent of the state's refund, and gives another 10 percent to its 13 local affiliates.

[...]

Once expenses are covered, that represents a major contribution to the builders' political war chest.

By law, most of the BIAW's membership dues - which came to more than half a million dollars last year - cannot be used for lobbying and other political activities. But there are no rules governing the profit the BIAW makes from its [lucrative] workers' comp business. That can all be plowed into political action.
Also worth reading is this 2004 article from the Seattle Weekly's George Howland, who noted that many cities participate in the BIAW's "retro rebate" program, and are thus ironically helping to fill the coffers of the state's most powerful right wing group.

In the last few years the BIAW has become more focused on the State Supreme Court. The BIAW's leadership would like nothing more than to stack the court with ideologically tilted justices who will consistently vote to strike down worker and environmental protection laws.

And in fact, the BIAW would like to take over the lower courts as well. They want the state's judicial branch in their pocket, so they can employ endless lawsuits to thwart the Governor and the Legislature whenever one or the other (or both) are controlled by Democrats - as is currently the case.

In 2002, the BIAW fought unsuccessfully to get rid of Supreme Court Justice Mary Fairhurst, who narrowly triumphed over the BIAW's candidate, lawyer Jim Johnson. (Johnson is notorious for helping draft initiatives for Tim Eyman, including Initiative 747, which he co-wrote with Rob McKenna, now the State Attorney General - and another BIAW stooge).

The BIAW backed Johnson again in 2004, when he ran against Mary Kay Becker, a Court of Appeals judge since her election in 1994. Becker raised just $157,000 in that race, while Johnson raised $539,000 - much of it provided by the BIAW.

This year, the BIAW is hoping to mount an even stronger assault. Together with its allies, it has created the "Constitutional Law PAC" with the hope of installing a slate of right wing justices.

So far, CLPAC is backing two major candidates - State Sen. Stephen L. Johnson, who is running against incumbent Justice Susan Owens, and John Groen, who is challenging incumbent Chief Justice Gerry Alexander. (The third incumbent justice, Tom Chambers, has not yet drawn a well funded challenger backed by CLPAC).

Both Groen and Johnson have been hard at work raising large war chests. The most recent reports, which just came in on Monday, are very worrisome (emphasis mine):
Buoyed by a flood of building-industry money just before new judicial campaign-finance limits became law, property-rights lawyer John Groen has gained a huge financial advantage in his effort to unseat Chief Justice Gerry Alexander of the state Supreme Court.

Public-disclosure reports filed by the candidates this week showed that Groen raised nearly four times as much money as Alexander -- $301,115 to $76,645 -- by the end of June.

For a state judicial campaign nearly four months before the general election, it is a gigantic campaign fund.

Nine of the donations to Groen came in sums ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 each, all less than a month before a new state law limiting judicial campaign contributions to $2,800 ($1,400 for the primary and $1,400 for the general election) took effect June 7.

His three biggest contributions -- of $25,000 each, from a home builder, a lumber-company president and a real estate investor -- all arrived five days preceding the new law. Six other contributors gave $5,000 each. Before June 7, there were no limits on contributions to judicial campaigns.

Groen, a Bellevue lawyer, has strong backing from the politically conservative, heavy-spending Building Industry Association of Washington, the builders' lobby with which he has been closely affiliated. He has represented building and development interests in litigation over land-use regulations and other regulatory laws.
Neil Modie's whole article is a must read, and gives more background on the BIAW's other candidate, former State Senator Steven Johsnon. Like Groen, Johnson has outraised Owens - his campaign reported contributions of $104,323 to Owens' $69,121 through June 30.

As the P-I reports, Groen and Johnson are both refusing to take part in the judicial candidate evaluation program of the King County Bar Association (and no surprise why, of course).

Steve Zemke has more about Groen's contributors here.

The BIAW cannot be allowed to succeed in packing the state Supreme Court with its own handpicked candidates - for obvious reasons. What's at stake this fall is the existence of Washington's independent, impartial judiciary.

The BIAW wants control of the court system. Not only do they need to be stopped before it's too late, but the Legislature needs to do something next session about the BIAW's abuse of the retro rebate system.

Fortunately, the Constitutional Law PAC has opposition. FairPAC has formed to try and protect the integrity of the Evergreen State's judicial branch. Most of the contributions so far have been from progressive interest groups, such as the WSLC, SEIU, WEA, NARAL, and the state trial lawyers' association. Other FairPAC supporters include Equal Rights Washington and Washington Conservation Voters.

(FairPAC, by the way, recently changed its name to Citizens to Uphold the Constitution. I find the new name confusing, which is why I used FairPAC in the above paragraph).

Unfortunately, judicial races have been languishing under the radar of the regional progressive blogosphere. While it absolutely important to help candidates like Darcy Burner, we cannot afford to ignore the Building Industry Association of Washington's scheme to stack our state's high court.

It's tempting to do a lot of blogging about the federal races - they are exciting, and we definitely do need to take back the Congress. But we also need to pay close attention to legislative races, right wing initiatives, and judicial elections.

We'll be posting much more regularly from now on about these three Supreme Court races, and any lower court races the BIAW tries to become involved in. It's our hope that the rest of the regional progressive blogosphere will do the same.

Justices Alexander, Owens, and Chambers (as mentioned previously) are the incumbents running for reelection this year. You can follow the links to their websites to learn more about them. You can also contribute to their campaigns to help them fight back against the BIAW and its slate of candidates.

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