MAYBE IT'S THE contrarian in me. But I'm finding the enormous brouhaha this past week over Tim Eyman's profit-sharing plan to be just a tad, well, tedious. And beside the point. And, especially among Eyman's many critics, more than a tad disingenuous.
So, to get the obvious out of the way: Yes, Eyman lied about his payments to himself (past and future) for helping to run his initiative campaigns. And lying is bad. Especially when you're selling your initiatives on the basis of being an authentic, unpaid vox populi, battling against the evil, self-interested giants of an unfettered, uncontrollable bureaucracy run amok.
However, believing that Eyman's initiatives have each pulled in the range of 60 percent voter approval statewide solely, or even to any significant degree, because of Eyman's personal purity is the worst kind of self-delusion. If Tim Eyman hadn't existed, someone would have invented him. His initiatives have passed not because our state has the country's most onerous tax system—it's about the middle of the pack for overall tax load—but because it has one of the country's most regressive. That is to say, compared to other states, a far greater proportion of Washington state's taxes fall on the backs and bank accounts of middle- and working- class people and small businesses, as opposed to the relative free rides of higher-income folks and bigger corporations.
The consequence: For almost any tax-relief initiative, in addition to the usual 30 percent or so of the electorate who will vote against anything they think will cost them money, you can add a sizable chunk that knows from personal experience (perhaps through moving here from other states, which many Washingtonians have done in the last decade or two) that they, personally, are paying too damned much. Not that the government is taking in too much, but that they're paying too much. They didn't need Tim Eyman to tell them that; they won't next year, either. They didn't need Eyman to watch and fume as their property taxes soared; they didn't need Eyman to take notice as they got nickeled-and-dimed on everything, and then soaked on major expenses like car purchases.
A libertarian-leaning former business partner of mine used to like to say that the fastest way to a revolution in this country would be for everyone to get all of their taxes combined, in one bill, once a year, and to have to write the check. Lawmakers have known this for years—which is why, rather than actually minimizing what we pay, they've worked hard over the years to hide it as fees and excise taxes and surcharges and licenses and gawdknowswhatelse. They're doing it as you read this to help make up for the current Eyman-assisted state budget shortfall. But there is a solution other than the Eyman meat ax.
It is to make the tax system fairer. Boeing alone gets enough tax breaks to cover a huge chunk of what legislators need—and it's only one company that lawmakers have coddled over the years. Plenty of other corporations have also snagged sweetheart deals, even in recent years as social services were slashed. The state has no income tax; even a gas tax increase, which isn't exactly progressive but at least makes owners of $40,000 SUVs pay more, has a hard time getting political support.
The answer is not to add such measures to existing taxes but to install them in place of some of the more regressive taxes, large and small, that our state and local jurisdictions keep heaping on us. Reduce the overall bill to most folks by making the state's Allens and Gateses pay their fair share.
Unless—and until—that happens, anti-tax initiatives are going to continue to resonate with a majority of the public. Eyman makes good copy—in both his successes and his failures—but he would be just another watch salesman were it not for the failures of our Legislature to listen to its citizens. People who criticize the initiative process do so because they don't want to listen to voters (locally, think monorail). We're too ignorant, goes the reasoning, to be trusted with Big Decisions (like how much we pay for our government). They would rather bemoan our collective majority ignorance than convincingly justify the current tax system, because they can't. Their fear is not that someone pays himself for working full time on a political campaign (imagine!) but that they can be held accountable for their actions by the democratic process. And lawmakers who fear democracy are much more of a scandal than Tim Eyman's foolish posturings.