TIM EYMAN has a new initiative.
With just those six words, you can cause politicians to reach for their Rolaids, liberal pundits to grab for their barf bags, and government workers to reflexively scan the want ads. Are we forgetting anyone?
Oh yeah, state voters. About 56 percent of them will probably reach for their ballots and vote "Yes." That's the record at the ballot box when Eyman talks taxes. In the past three elections, he's won between 55 percent and 57 percent of the state vote on a trio of efforts to trim vehicle taxes and limit the ability of local governments to raise property taxes without a public vote.
His latest initiative demonstrates how Eyman is simultaneously a powerful political force and his own worst enemy. The strength of Initiative 776, a.k.a. "The Right to Vote on Higher Vehicle Taxes," is its pure populism that taps into Washingtonians' tax-cut fever. The weakness is that little old Eyman bugaboo, the state constitution.
The initiative is a grab bag of tax trims aimed mainly at ensuring Washingtonians get the $30 car tabs they were promised by Eyman's first ballot measure, 1999's Initiative 695. The new initiative would:
*Put the squeeze on Sound Transit by eliminating the agency's auto excise tax charged to drivers in King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties;
*Abolish two state fees that add $3.50 to the price of car tabs;
*Repeal a $15 car tab surcharge for transportation funding assessed in four counties (including King);
*Reduce the cost of boat licenses (now 1 percent of value) to a flat $10.50;
*Price licenses for campers and travel trailers at $15 annually;
And other items too numerous to mention!
Whew. That's a lot of tax cuts for a single trip to the ballot box.
Will Eyman's "my way or no highway" approach to transportation funding score with state voters? Probably.
The real secret to Eyman's success is that his populist initiatives deftly exploit the cultural differences between the real world and the world of government. While private-sector jobs ebb and flow with the economy, government workers have strong unions, matchless job security, and (often) automatic raises. Even though Eyman's Initiative 747, passed by voters earlier this month, was depicted as a budget-slashing terror, all it really did was limit annual property tax increases for local governments to 1 percent.
Political hopefuls love to blather on about running government like a business—Eyman asks them to quit talking and actually do it. Government gets millions of dollars through existing taxes, he reasons. Eyman's goal is to freeze taxes at current rates and force politicians to take future tax increases to the voters.
It's called living on a budget. Want to add a pet program? Find another program you can do without. Want to give workers a raise? Figure out which jobs are least essential, cut them, and there's your raise money.
Needless to say, Eyman is tremendously unpopular with state employee unions. Labor's chief political ally, the Democratic Party, is predictably apoplectic over Eyman's statewide success.
Eyman's opponents' contempt simmered over early in the No on I-747 campaign when they ran a series of radio ads that attempted to demonize him. They've hinted at financial motives for his initiative fervor—Eyman's private company billed the pro-747 campaign $90,292 last year. He says the charges were for legitimate management and database expenses. They've even accused him of planning his own run for statewide political office. Eyman denies the charge and sounds genuinely insulted when doing so.
He offers his critics a bit of free advice: "As long as they keep trying to make me the issue, they're going to lose badly. The voters don't care anything about the sponsor; they only care, 'Does this initiative fundamentally solve a problem?' "
However, looking at Eyman's latest creation, I-776, it's clear he needs to ask himself a question, too: "Does this initiative cause itself problems?"
His first two initiatives were struck down in court (although a shell-shocked Legislature enacted $30 car tabs into law anyway) when his tendency to pack multiple issues into a single ballot measure ran afoul of an obscure constitutional provision Eyman calls "that darned single subject rule."
Earlier this year, political observers thought that the Mukilteo initiative maven had learned his lesson when he rolled out I-747, which even critics acknowledge is probably constitutional. How quickly Eyman forgot his basic civics.
Eyman's critics have immediately noticed his latest initiative seems to be about a lot more than one subject. In addition, Eyman's effort to turn off Sound Transit's tax spigot is particularly boneheaded. Back in 1996, voters in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties voted to tax themselves to fund Sound Transit and its program of express buses, commuter rail, and light rail. Since then, Sound Transit's cost overruns and schedule delays have made the agency extremely controversial. I-776 asks voters statewide, whether they are in Spokane, Vancouver, or Forks, to repeal taxes that people in Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett specifically agreed to. "I don't think it's constitutional," says state Rep. Ruth Fisher (D-Tacoma), chair of the House Transportation Committee. "I don't know if a statewide vote can [nullify] a vote by a regional transit district that was not voted on statewide."
Also, as Sound Transit is a voter- approved tax, this gives his critics a chance to call him a hypocrite. "He wants people to vote their own local taxes," says political consultant Christian Sinderman, who ran this year's losing battle against Eyman. "But when there's one he doesn't like, he wants voters around the state to help him repeal it."
Eyman responds that Sound Transit's current light-rail plan is quite different from the one voters approved.
Nice talk, but this is still an attack on a voter-approved tax—and therefore a terrible philosophical blunder for a guy who thrives on pointing fingers at the political expediency of others.
Unfortunately for Eyman's opponents, constitutional concerns are not likely to stop his power at the ballot box (though they may nix the results). Moreover, his critics are going after the constitution themselves: One prominent Seattle Democrat lamented the passage of I-747 by calling the voters "an obstacle" to good government; another fulminated on the radio that it's time to complicate the process of getting initiatives on the ballot.
Not so fast, tax-and-spenders: Washington's initiative process is immortalized directly in the state constitution. A constitutional change calls for a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Legislature and the approval of the voters. Only politicians could possibly believe that voters want to kill their only direct voice in government.