In The Northwest: Despite his shortsightedness, Eyman has a point


LYNNWOOD, WA - 4/4/03-- Tim Eyman has an impeccable sense of timing.

When better for a tax rebel to suggest coffee to a critical Seattle columnist than during the time that a Seattle property tax bill is sitting home on the scribe's kitchen counter?

After a morning with the man who has become Washington's unelected governor -- and pursues the limelight more relentlessly than our hapless incumbent in Olympia -- two very contradictory impressions of Eyman gelled in my mind.

He is, first of all, a menace to the state -- or at least an obstacle to Olympia's struggle to find a tax formula to upgrade our overtaxed, overwhelmed and economy-hurting transportation infrastructure.

At the same time, however, he is a needed threat to bring some accountability to arrogant quasi-government agencies (e.g. Sound Transit) whose big dreams often yield big debacles and cost us dearly.

"Ask our permission first!" is Eyman's mantra, an insistence that any gas tax increase be put to a public vote, and that Sound Transit's light rail plan be voted on again. He is pushing an initiative that would require a two-thirds legislative majority or voter approval to raise state revenue.

Listening to Eyman, I recalled what for years was a fall classic in the nation's comics pages.

Charlie Brown, the signature character on "Peanuts," would get ready to kick a football teed up by Lucy. He would elicit the promise that his devious playmate would not jerk the ball away. Inevitably, Lucy would lift the football. Charlie would fall on his fanny. Lucy would have an inventive, know-it-all explanation.

As a man who knows his movement, which has yielded him handsome income and influence, Eyman is likely to lift the football on any gas tax boost.

He'll voice a familiar refrain -- "The politicians haven't gotten it" -- even if our legislators were to agree to pay construction crews only the minimum wage, and to post an auditor at every Department of Transportation construction site in the state.

Consequently, as they pull all-nighters and try to balance needs of I-405 and state Route 520 and the Alaskan Way Viaduct, our official governor and legislative leaders need to face the music.

They're going to face some bumps in the road if they want to repair some bumps in our roads. It'll require beating the tax revolt movement at the polls, a sales job that will require a quality product.

During the current budget crisis, however, Eyman is far less annoying than the state's business chieftains. While we live in the Northwest, their behavior suggests the old Texas maxim: All hat and no cattle.

On Tuesday, Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer gave a speech appealing for higher education funding, saying that 2,000 Microsoft jobs here will go wanting for lack of qualified candidates.

"Taxpayers in the state have to come to grips with the notion that we need to invest in higher education," Ballmer told an Eastern Washington University civic breakfast.

A day later, however, the Washington Roundtable -- representing 40 CEOs around the state -- endorsed a no-new-taxes budget proposed by Republicans in the state Senate. It provides no pay increase for the state's college faculty, no pay raise for veteran teachers in our K-12 schools, and suspends the voter-passed initiative to reduce class size.

OK, back to why it's good to have Tim Eyman around.

Based on the last 25 years of state history, the tax revolt folks are right on one major point: We'll get taxation without accountability unless somebody pushes back the other way.

What makes one so cynical? Evidence. Look at the 496-foot-tall cooling tower at Satsop, completed at a cost of $14.6 million for a nuclear plant on which the Washington Public Power Supply System had already announced it would stop construction. WPPSS' directors uttered not a peep of protest.

Or consider a conversation last fall at The Diet, a monthly dinner gathering of Seattle's elite. A group of bigdoms joked about how they planned to vote for the monorail, while registering cars at summer/weekend retreats to avoid the whopping Motor Vehicle Excise Tax increase due Emerald City residents.

Or maybe it's the Seattle Public Schools. The district has overspent its budget by $34 million over a two-year period, and faces an $8.7 million shortfall next year. Now, however, it's starting to drum up support for a capital funding levy that could reach $200 million -- up, up and away from the $150 million levy of 1998.

Or maybe it's hearing yesterday that King County Executive Ron Sims and a bevy of Sound Transit bigwigs are in Shanghai, studying light rail in a city very different and far more densely populated than our own.

Leave it to Sound Transit to put us on a slow train to China.

Make no mistake: Eyman and his revolting taxpayers have been horribly short-sighted on money needs of state and local government, and the urgent task of unlocking gridlock.

Mr. Eyman is, however, needed as a safeguard against bossy, brook-no-dissent visionaries and complacent boards of directors whose actions are so very, very taxing. Hence, I wish him well on the initiative to reduce our King County Council from 13 to nine members -- being challenged in court by King County Prosecutor-for-life Norm Maleng -- and his guerilla action against Sound Transit.

Eyman is a skilled, live-off-the-land partisan. Still, the defensive rings around Sound Transit -- legal, bureaucratic and public relations -- put to shame anything Saddam Hussein has managed to erect around Baghdad.

The struggle will be fun to watch.

P-I columnist Joel Connelly can be reached at 206-448-8160 or


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