For many of you, having Tim Eyman running the city of Seattle would be your worst nightmare. I'm the guy who offers voters public policy choices through the initiative process. I've co-sponsored several initiatives over the past five years that have limited vehicle license tab fees and property tax increases, and required voter approval for higher taxes. And so far, the voters have agreed with these ideas. Our initiative on the November ballot is I-776, "$30 Tabs for Everyone," which not only sets annual license tab fees for vehicles to $30 but also ensures a revote on Sound Transit's light-rail plan. Based on these public policy ideas, you'd certainly expect me to run Seattle differently than what you're used to.
But after umpteen Seattle administrations promising to run things "The Seattle Way," would my approach really be so bad? I think you'll be surprised. So set aside your preconceptions and biases for a moment and see what government would be like "The Eyman Way."
When Seattle Weekly asked me to write an article that put me at the helm of the city so I could illustrate my philosophy of government, I really had to rack my brain. As an activist, my goals have always been quite limited. The stereotype has always been that my merry band of tax warriors and I put forth simpleminded solutions to complex problems, and that the Neanderthal electorate always had a predictable, Pavlovian response: me see tax cuts, grunt, me vote for tax cuts, grunt.
Obviously, I don't see it that way. There are times when elected officials get so bogged down in "the process" that they lose track of solving or even managing the problem. My goal has always been to prod our elected officials—to show them that voters want action. And on a more fundamental level, my goal has been to remind elected officials that the taxpayers are the employers and that elected officials are the employees. Far too many elected officials believe it is the other way around. One of the ancillary benefits of our initiatives has been engaging the electorate in the political process. Say what you want about our initiatives, but there is no denying that they give the average taxpayer an equal voice.
My basic governmental philosophy came from a seminal political event: the campaign to force a public vote on the baseball stadium in 1995. When that issue first appeared on the political scene, I was very green about politics, but I learned quickly that elected officials like BIG projects, BIG events, and BIG legacies.
I always found that approach to government to be repugnant. Government isn't supposed to be sexy or spectacular or amazing. In my mind, government exists for very limited purposes: to handle the basics and to assist people who need help. The great majority of the public not only accepts but enthusiastically supports effective government programs that assist the truly needy. Whether you are rich or poor, you want to make sure the people who need a helping hand are taken care of—and private charities and religious organizations can only do so much.
Every time a tax-limiting initiative passes, I hope that our elected officials will take that opportunity to prioritize government spending and to concentrate our collective resources on the basics. Consistently, however, elected officials never seem to give up on the stupid, idiotic, wasteful, BIG government programs. They don't take the cue from the public that priorities must be set and must be followed.
Unfortunately, even progressive administrations have found such things as caring for the poor, road repair, and park maintenance too boring. Elected officials from both parties seem to prefer "exciting" government programs like multimillion-dollar sports stadiums and multibillion-dollar "train-to-nowhere" light-rail boondoggles and extravagant concert halls and commanding music amphitheaters and massive Seattle Commons parks and "Rise Above It All" monorails and $600,000 self-cleaning public toilets.
But while millions and billions of dollars are blown on BIG projects that enhance BIG political legacies, the basic functions of government and the truly needy scrape and scratch for attention and funding.
You can see this absurdity in Seattle's affordable housing levy (Seattle voters approved it in September, and it provides $86 million over seven years). Greg Nickels and all but one of the Seattle City Council members decided to expand the levy to include middle-income families. Their "vision" was to raise property taxes for everyone, including senior citizens struggling to afford their rent payments (yes, renters pay property taxes also), so that two-income families could buy a condo in Seattle. What idiocy! And rather than giving the truly needy a housing voucher, elected officials provide subsidies to handpicked developers to build affordable housing. It would be much better to identify those needy individuals and allow them to decide how best to allocate their government assistance to enhance their own lives.
One would assume, based on my background, that tax relief would be my top priority It would not be. The reason is simple: As long as our elected officials have such whacked-out priorities as multimillion-dollar third runways and $11 billion Alaskan Way Viaducts (that's 895 years' worth of Seattle affordable housing levies), there will always be activists out there who will put tax relief measures on the ballot. And as long as our elected officials fail to listen to the message of these initiatives, tax relief measures will continue to pass. Further tax relief would not need my help.
Under "The Eyman Way," the voters would determine how much tax revenue would be provided (from existing revenues and additional revenues from voter-approved proposals sponsored by activists or elected officials). It would be up to the government to spend those dollars as cost-effectively as possible. "The Eyman Way" would focus those limited resources on the basics and taking care of the truly needy. Too often, government caters its resources to accommodate the business community or the public employee unions or the environmental movement or the press or Seattle's numerous billionaires.
Case in point: our elected officials' infatuation with the reprehensible waste of tax dollars on Sound Transit's light rail. Billions of dollars are being allocated to a government project that even Sound Transit admits will do nothing to relieve traffic congestion. Already a billion dollars over budget (that's 81 years of Seattle affordable housing levies), this black hole for our tax dollars has become the biggest boondoggle since WPPSS. That project resulted in the largest public municipal bond default ever (sure sounds like d骠 vu to me). Progressive voices like Maggi Fimia, Emory Bundy, and Booth Gardner have put forth pages and pages of statistics and pie charts that clearly illustrate the foolishness of Sound Transit's light rail. They provide ample evidence that a fraction of Sound Transit's tax dollars allocated instead toward enhancing bus service would bring about far greater flexibility and benefits to the region.
So what is the weakness of their approach? It's not BIG; it's not EXCITING; it doesn't involve a ribbon-cutting ceremony that enhances a BIG political legacy.
The only option available to taxpayers that ensures accountability for Sound Transit comes from the initiative process (any hope of internal reform was shattered when Ron Sims fired Rob McKenna, an intelligent, financially responsible voice on the Sound Transit board). Our initiative, I-776, which is on the November ballot, ensures a long-overdue revote on Sound Transit's light rail by repealing 20 percent of their funding. Sound Transit officials admit they don't have enough tax revenue NOW to complete their project. So by approving I-776 in November, voters will send the message that they want a revote BEFORE the project begins, not when it's halfway done. And since Seattle voters will overwhelmingly approve a tax increase for the monorail at the same time, voting "yes" for I-776 also sends the message that Seattle voters would prefer to have their tax dollars directed to monorail rather than being further squandered on light rail.
I bring up Sound Transit because it is a perfect illustration of how elected officials "still don't get it." As this rogue government agency has recklessly moved forward even as public support has plummeted, elected officials have dug in their heels, thinking that they will be seen as weak if they "succumb" to public pressure. Leadership involves listening. When governmental incompetence as pronounced as Sound Transit's continues unchecked, elected officials lose the moral high ground when they fight for essential, competent government programs.
I must say that it has been remarkably fun for me to paint a picture of "The Eyman Way." You can rest assured, however, that it will never happen—I will never be an elected official.
All of us make decisions as to whether or how we can positively contribute to the political process. Some run for office, others donate money, others write letters to the editor, and still others find that their only contribution to the process is their vote.
I am extremely fortunate that I have found a positive role in the political process by sponsoring initiatives. I work with some extraordinarily talented and courageous people who want nothing but the best for our state. We have engaged the public in some critical public policy issues that have enhanced their participation and understanding. And as long as peaceful political free speech is available in Washington, we will continue to offer voters more public policy choices with our initiatives.
Because unlike this article's Mayor Eyman fiction, giving voters more choices at the ballot box is the real-world definition of "The Eyman Way."
Tim Eyman is originally from Yakima and has a business degree from Washington State University. He lives in Mukilteo with his wife and two sons. For more of Eyman's ideas, check out his uncensored, uncorked, and unbelievably interesting interview with columnist Geov Parrish, exclusively at seattleweekly.com. A much shorter version of the interview previously appeared in the Weekly. Also, on Thursday, Oct. 17, City Club is sponsoring a debate—live and in person—between Eyman and former Supreme Court Justice and '04 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Talmadge. Registration starts at 11:45 a.m.; the debate is from noon to 1:30 p.m.; $22 includes lunch, $8 coffee only. The event will be held at the Columbia Tower Club, 701 Fifth Ave., 75th floor, offering beautiful views of Eyman's future domain. Call 206-682-7395 for reservations; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.