I-776: enough spin to turn a voter's head
Seattle, WA - Initiative 776 won. A voter would almost think that
it lost, given the
spin now being applied.
The legal spin occurring in courtrooms, beginning this morning, is
attempt to convert a loss into a victory. The political spin is the
idea, spread by Sound Transit's supporters, that the election was
a moral victory for light rail because I-776 failed in Sound Transit's
Moral victories require moral battles. Tim Eyman tried to frame I-776
as a battle against light rail, as did I, on this page. So did
Seattle's quirky tabloid, The Stranger, whose endorsement delighted
Eyman immensely. The campaign against I-776 did not frame it as a
battle to save light rail. The opponents, funded by Boeing, the League
of Conservation Voters and others, ran a radio ad against I-776. It
posted at www.voteno776.com. In the ad, two citizens kibitz about
stuck in traffic. They never mention light rail.
What was the biggest tax to be repealed by I-776? Sound Transit's
0.3-percent property tax on cars, much of which funds light rail.
Turn to the editorial pages. The Seattle Times ran a piece Oct. 24
under the byline of Dick Ford, a Preston Gates & Ellis attorney
representing Sound Transit. The Post-Intelligencer ran one Oct. 22
under the bylines of Steve Williamson of the Washington State Labor
Council and Steve Leahy of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.
Here is how they dealt with light rail: Williamson and Leahy said
"does not mention a revote on Sound Transit anywhere in the
initiative." Ford said I-776 "does not mention a revote
Transit anywhere in the text of the initiative."
The words are written by the same hand - which says something about
celebrity bylines. More important here is that the two pieces had
exactly the same message: I-776 was about democracy, about buses,
roads, about Tim Eyman. It was not about light rail.
To debate Eyman, City Club invited Phil Talmadge, a Democrat opposed
light rail. I-776, Talmadge said, was about Tim Eyman, who he called
the highest-paid politician in Washington. George Howland, political
editor of the Seattle Weekly, said on KUOW-FM that I-776 was about
Eyman, not light rail.
There is no moral victory here for light rail. The only victory may
a legal one, if Sound Transit can weasel out of the law.
I-776 becomes law tomorrow. It says that counties must stop collecting
their $15-per-car tax and that Sound Transit must stop collecting
0.3-percent car-value tax. But because Sound Transit made promises
its bondholders, it can't lift its tax unless first it sets aside
to pay off its bonds. It has the money to do so; it has been levying
taxes for years. In no way is it prevented from complying with I-776.
It doesn't want to comply.
Nor does the government of King County, which also has bondholders.
The governments of Snohomish and Pierce counties have no bondholder
skirts to hide behind. Snohomish has complied with the law and lifted
the tax. Pierce County and the city of Tacoma are arguing in court
morning that I-776 is unconstitutional because of the single-subject
rule. That is, that the repeal of their $15 tax is one subject and
repeal of Sound Transit's 0.3-percent tax is another. The two taxes,
they argue, should have been in separate initiatives.
This implies that any $30-tabs initiative would be too complicated
voters to understand.
The other argument to invalidate I-776 is that if any taxes are to
rolled back in the counties or the Sound Transit district, it should
decided only by the voters in those districts. Whether that is a good
legal argument I do not know, but it is a good political argument.
Where it fails is at Sound Transit itself. Sound Transit's voters
should have the right of initiative and the right to vote on candidates
for its board of directors. They have neither, because the lawyers
designed the agency made it that way.
Sound Transit is set up not for the convenience of its owners, the
voters, but for the convenience of the people who make a living off
Can I-776 crack that open? It just might.