TIM EYMAN has become an inexplicable blight on our state government. His minuscule shadow terrifies our lawmakers. He can't write an initiative that can survive court challenges, but he has cowed our spineless legislators and governor into doing much of his wretched, destructive work for him. He's been a menace. But his current initiative isn't half bad.
Initiative 747, on the ballot next month, is, of course, another tax cut. But it differs significantly from past Eyman attempts at lawmaking in significant ways: First, he had a good lawyer look at it so it's likely to pass constitutional muster. Second, rather than cutting a tax, it says any property tax increase above 1 percent must be approved by voters. (Granted, that's well under the rate of inflation—the initiative's biggest problem.) Rather than rigidly mandating potentially destructive cuts in services, it gives voters an out, before or after: If they are willing to pay, they can vote to tax themselves.
That seems fair to me. At minimum, it's fairer than the status quo: a property tax system that just about everybody agrees is onerous, but which the state can't or won't reform on its own. Last week, in the Seattle Weekly's editorial board interview with Eyman and state Sen. Adam Kline, who is opposing I-747, I asked them both about the stunning regressiveness of our state's tax system and the initiative's impact on it. Kline replied with a preferred theme: initiatives are a lousy way to craft something as complex as tax law, and legislation concerning revenue should be left to our wise legislators.
OK, Adam, lay it out for me. Comprehensive legislative restructuring of the Washington state taxation system and peace on earth. A timeline. Which comes first?
The point, of course, is that sloppy tax reform is a lot better than no tax reform. Ideally, when I-747 passes, it will inspire lawmakers to actually do something about our tax system, which relies too heavily on sales and property taxes that punish the poor. That would be a breakthrough. Now that we're officially in a recession, our regressive tax system is even more stacked against the poor and middle classes. At the same time, the necessary demands on government are greater than ever. The answer is fairly obvious: shift the burden so that those who can afford more (wealthy individuals and profitable businesses) are the ones who actually have to pay more.
The anti-747 argument is essentially that politicians will never do that—they'd rather cut critical services than tax the rich and big corporations fairly. But they've been cutting those services anyway: welfare "reform" and the loss of our state's health care reform, mental health care system, and affordable public housing, for example, are all changes driven by much more than past spending limits. Our state's less fortunate are getting screwed by both taxes and the lack of services.
This time, what Eyman is doing makes some sense. More sense, in fact, than waiting for Godot in the state Capitol.
PROFILES IN SPORADIC COURAGE
And now that I've shocked and bewildered all you liberals by saying something nice about Tim Eyman, let me compound your confusion by praising . . . U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott.
As regular readers know, I think his performance in recent years has been appalling. But lo and behold: Jim, who for years has taken the term "safe seat" to mean that he can lock his principles away in a safe (and buy replacements from the party whip), is suddenly a national lightning rod of praise and criticism. Whoda thunk it? Not me, but I'm glad it's happened. His bold stance was to become the first congressman, the following day, to publicly question the wisdom and thoughtfulness of the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan.
When McDermott supported Clinton's decimation of Yugoslavia in 1999, I noted in this space that he'd backslid a long way from his principled opposition to the Gulf War. McDermott's willingness to criticize U.S. wars seems to correlate strongly with the party occupying the White House. Were Al Gore in the Oval Office, I suspect the U.S. would have attacked much sooner, and Jim would have been on board. Nonetheless, there are a couple hundred other congressional Democrats who also dislike Bush, and only one other (the heroic Barbara Lee of Oakland) has spoken out so far. McDermott hasn't stuck his neck out in years, and whether principled or opportunistic, he's done so now at a critical time to make an essential point. He deserves our thanks and gratitude, and our encouragement to keep speaking out.