695 surprises

It was last January when I first talked to the engaging Tim Eyman, the cocreator (with car dealer Martin Rood) of Initiative 695, which would largely eliminate both this state’s motor-vehicle excise tax and the taxing authority of its representative government. Eyman said he had scant personal interest in rolling back vehicle taxes to just $30 a year: “I’ve only got a dented Nissan. I pay $150 a year for tax.” Now The Seattle Times reveals (in an August 15 profile) that his wife “drives a 1998 Saab that cost the couple $900 to license this year.” When I asked Eyman about this contradiction, he said, “The 1990 Nissan is what I drive.” But not all that he pays tax on.

The Times also quotes Eyman as saying he “can’t wait” till officials lay into his initiative, which they see as a fiscal suicide pact: “The people that are going to be attacking us aren’t exactly dripping with credibility. They’re going to have to convince people that their car taxes aren’t too high and that they’re not overtaxed.” Credibility? Hmm. . . .

Eyman likewise has some canny reasons for attacking the car-tab tax rather than, say, sales or business-and-occupation taxes, which are also high in this state. He decries the car tax as “blatantly unfair,” hard on the poor, and a disincentive to the economy. But he doesn’t deny that the sales tax is more regressive and unfair to the poor, and the business-and-occupation tax more unfair to start-ups (which, profitable or not, are taxed on gross sales) and small businesses (which don’t get the breaks Weyerhaeuser and Boeing do). But the car tax is the easiest target. “License-tab fees are one big hit,” he notes. “That’s the tax where you write the check. It’s visible”—unlike the sales tax, which is exacted bit by bit, or property tax, which is hidden in rent or mortgage statements.

A stealth gas tax!

Eyman seems to think taxes are endlessly cuttable; he says he doesn’t worry that gutting tab fees will boost this state’s dependence on the even worse sales and B&O taxes. But in the real world, it could bring this state to pass an income tax. And that may not be the last unintended consequence of I-695. Imagine this (slightly far-fetched) scenario: Under 695, voters soon tire of voting on each playing-field charge and every other state, city, and county tax and fee. They stay home in droves. And a determined minority is able to do what legislators would never dare do: pass a whopping gas-tax increase dedicated to transit, bikeways, and oil-spill protection. Heh heh heh. A stealth initiative begets many more stealth votes.

Public administration, Italian-style

But the likelier result of 695 will be something like the state of Italian museums for many years. Thanks to the local variety of political and bureaucratic paralysis, their fees never rose with inflation, and you could visit magnificent collections in the mid-’80s for as little as two bits. That seemed a sweet deal—till you noticed how neglected and rundown the museums were. Now the fees have risen, and the Italians are struggling to repair the damage.

Eating their own

It’s reassuring to see that the Clinton/Morris “triangulation” hasn’t severed the Democratic Party from its roots. One Democratic tradition still rages strong:eating one’s own. You see it in all the back-biting, pig-piling, and tut-tutting that Deborah Senn is getting for coming right out and challenging Senator Slade Gorton instead of pussyfooting around the idea. What, a candidate with chutzpah? Outrageous! Truth is, after two terms and ample headlines as state insurance commissioner, Senn’s got lots more political cred and name recognition than Patty Murray did when she set out for the Senate. Not to mention brains. But she doesn’t have the tennis shoes or other soft surfaces; there’s an unsettling gender, and maybe ethnic, undercurrent to the murmurs about Senn’s “abrasive, East Coast” ways. No one blames Slade for being a smart, abrasive Easterner.

In their new email newsletter Demo Memo, veteran Demo operatives Maralyn Chase and Nancy Rising note that all the intraparty “hand-wringing, public recruiting and public angst” over Senn’s bid recalls the way the last bid to unseat Gorton unraveled: “Five years ago when we had five candidates running against Slade, our party chair was quoted continually . . . hoping there would be a ‘big name’ and a ‘strong candidate’ to run. . . . Every time a statement like that was made, the fundraising would shut down cold.”

This latest bout of Demo Syndrome also recalls the 1988 presidential race, when the contenders for the nomination got tagged as “the seven dwarves.” After that, the winning dwarf never stood a chance. One of the losers was Al Gore—and here he goes again. Thank you, Warren Beatty.

By contrast, the Republicans sniffed the air for a whiff of victory and flocked like geese around George W. But now cocaine rumors are proving just the appetizers the Rs need to discover the joys of autophagy.

Rush hour through the tulips

How far has exurbanization crept? From here the Skagit Valley still seems remote and bucolic, a haven of tulips and tranquillity. And Mount Vernon, its biggest town, still preens at being rated number one in a 1997 book, The New Rating Guide to Life in America’s Small Cities. But then another first came to light: Skagit County’s biggest employer (with more than 700 employees) was the Boeing Company down in Snohomish and King counties. (Recent Boeing cutbacks may have changed that, for the time being.) “We’re not quite a bedroom community yet,” says Mary Evitt, the Skagit Valley Herald‘s business editor, “but there are certainly more people driving away.” She notes that her paper has started a “column called ‘Drive Time,’ on transportation and commuter concerns.”

“Creating a bedroom community isn’t necessarily the best thing,” muses the county Economic Development Association’s director, Don Wick. “People tend to be less committed to communities they don’t work in.”

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