Latest Eyman initiative seeks large property tax rollback

By Keith Ervin
Seattle Times staff reporter

12/30/03

Washington State - In what may be his boldest and most controversial tax-cutting initiative campaign yet, Tim Eyman is proposing an initiative that would ask the state's voters to approve a 25 percent rollback in many property taxes collected by local governments.

School levies and other voter-approved property taxes would be exempt from the initiative, which Eyman said would save state taxpayers $550 million a year. He plans to file the measure with the state Office of the Secretary of State on Friday.

Eyman had planned to float an initiative to reduce property taxes levied by state government, but he said yesterday he decided he would target local governments instead, after determining they are "the biggest culprit" in raising taxes.

Governments that would be affected by the measure range from cities and counties to special districts that operate ports, libraries, hospitals and rural fire departments. Local-government officials said the proposed initiative could have a devastating impact on essential services such as police and courts.

Eyman said the governing bodies of Washington's 1,700 local governments and special districts make tax decisions "in a vacuum," without considering the cumulative impact of their decisions on taxpayers.

Eyman initiatives


Since 1999, five initiatives sponsored by Tim Eyman have qualified for the statewide ballot. Four have passed. Here's a rundown:
1999: Initiative 695

Purpose: Replace state motor-vehicle excise tax with flat $30 annual fee. Require a public vote on all tax and fee increases.

At the polls: Passed.

In court: Struck down by state Supreme Court, which said it violated constitutional requirement that all laws be limited to a single subject. Legislature later passed law approving $30 car tabs.

2000: Initiative 722

Purpose: Limit growth of property taxes. Eliminate a variety of local fees and taxes.

At the polls: Passed.

In court: Struck down by state Supreme Court, again for violating constitution's "single-subject" rule.

2000: Initiative 745

Purpose: Require Legislature to spend 90 percent of all state transportation money on roads.

At the polls: Defeated.

2001: Initiative 747

Purpose: Limit annual growth in government property-tax collections to 1 percent unless voters approve higher rate.

At the polls: Passed.

In court: Constitutionality not challenged.

2002: Initiative 776

Purpose: Repeal Sound Transit motor-vehicle excise tax and $15 annual vehicle-license fees imposed by four counties. Replace state weight fees on light trucks with a flat $30 charge.

At the polls: Passed.

In court: Repeal of county license fees and state light-truck fees upheld by state Supreme Court. Collection of Sound Transit tax continues pending more hearings in King County Superior Court.



"The tax burden is high. People have reached the point where they can't handle the burden there is now," he said.

The proposal, though, is drawing concern from both Democrat and Republican politicians.

"This one is a weapon of mass destruction when it comes to tax initiatives," said King County Assessor Scott Noble, a Democrat, who successfully challenged an earlier Eyman initiative in court.

Metropolitan King County Councilman Rob McKenna of Bellevue, a Republican, supported an Eyman initiative in 2001 that limited property-tax collection. But he said yesterday the magnitude of this new proposal "... is a drastic cut for a single year in light of the fact that we've been successful in bringing (tax) growth down below the inflation rate."

In an e-mail going out to his supporters today, Eyman called the new plan a "smart, balanced, reasonable proposal that voters will enthusiastically embrace."

Observers speculated that Eyman backed away from his original plan that would have cut state property taxes because it would have stirred up opposition from public-school supporters. The revised proposal emphasizes funding would not be cut to the state or to local school districts.

Eyman said cutting state property taxes 25 percent would have saved taxpayers $350 million a year $200 million less than he said they would save by reducing local government taxes.

King County and Seattle officials reacted angrily to Eyman's latest proposed initiative.

Property taxes subject to the proposed initiative account for more than 44 percent of King County's general-fund revenues and 28 percent of Seattle's. Both jurisdictions have been forced to make deep budget cuts since Eyman's earlier Initiative 747 limited increases in property-tax collections to 1 percent a year unless voters approve a higher rate.

The largest expenditures in the county's general-fund budget are for justice-related activities including the Sheriff's Office, Superior and District courts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and jails for adult and juvenile offenders. The county spent millions of dollars, noted King County Council Chairman Larry Phillips, a Seattle Democrat, to solve the 48 Green River killings and send murderer Gary Ridgway to prison for life.

Phillips said opponents of Eyman's proposed initiative might organize a "decline to sign" campaign in which they would shadow signature-gatherers and attempt to dissuade citizens from signing. Eyman must submit 200,000 valid voter signatures to qualify the proposed initiative for November's ballot.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' spokeswoman, Marianne Bichsel, rejected Eyman's claim that cutting taxes would make government more efficient. Seattle would lose $44 million a year if the proposed initiative were to become law, she said.

"What does he want to cut?" Bichsel said. "Police? Fire? Libraries? Parks? Human services? Because that's exactly what will happen. Basic services will be severely cut."

Noble said it's unclear from the proposed initiative's language whether it would exempt from cuts tax levy "lid lifts" temporary increases above the 1 percent limit approved by a simple majority of voters in addition to school levies and other "excess levies" approved by a supermajority of 60 percent. If lid lifts were rolled back, he said, that "might just wipe out these fire districts altogether."

Some fire districts depend almost entirely on property-tax revenues.

Eyman said the proposed initiative would not negate any voter-approved levies, and said Noble was trying to discredit a clearly written proposal.

Despite Eyman's impressive track record at rolling back taxes by initiative, Seattle City Councilwoman Jan Drago said Eyman may find that voters don't want to drastically reduce funding for local government.

"This might backfire, because this will affect everyday citizens in every area of the state. Maybe this is where they're going to say, 'Hell, no,' " she said.

Material from the Associated Press is included in this report.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com


 

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