Eyman's last stand? Initiative king stakes crown on tax cuts
OLYMPIA -- Could this be Tim Eyman's last stand?
Washington's pre-eminent peddler of tax-revolt initiatives has hit a dry spell, and his critics, of course, hope he's on his last legs. He got caught with his hand in the campaign cookie jar, and it's been several years since his marquee successes with $30 license tabs and property tax limits. In 2003, he failed to qualify for the statewide ballot at all.
Now he's on the comeback trail, this time hawking his boldest plan yet -- a 25 percent cutback in all local property taxes that aren't specifically voter-approved.
It's a breathtaking $650 million rollback, worth several hundred dollars a year to the average taxpayer.
His critics call it a fiscal "weapon of mass destruction" that would devastate cities, counties, ports and other local governments. Eyman dismisses that as "Chicken Little talk" and says the state's 1,700 local taxing districts can reorganize, reprioritize and get along with less - or ask their patrons to suspend the cuts.
Clearly, his future viability as initiative king is on the line.
"This is his last stand," says Eyman's most persistent critic, Christian Sinderman. "He knows that if he doesn't qualify for the ballot this year, he's through."
Eyman doesn't see it in such black-and-white terms, but acknowledges his fate is in the hands of his cadre of anti-tax backers -- and, if he qualifies for the ballot, the state voters next fall.
Redemption or retirement?
To critics, he's unraveling basic services by choking off revenue, most notably auto excise taxes and property taxes. They're also convinced he's more interested in lining his pockets than affecting public policy.
Ever since he got into hot water for secretly diverting over $200,000 in campaign contributions into to a salary account, he has gone pro, dropping his mantle of unpaid champion of the overtaxed little guy.
He solicited over $100,000 for a legal defense fund, including money to pay a whopping $55,000 fine. He directly solicited his backers for a salary this year -- even after not qualifying his 2003 initiative -- and will do the same next summer. He's sharing a pot of about $80,000 with two colleagues. Eyman also received a $20,000 check from the King County Corrections Guild, described as a thank-you gift for helping with a local initiative to shrink the King County Council.
In short, like no other individual in state history, Eyman has made this into a cottage industry.
Intrigued by irascible reformist presidential candidate Ross Perot and initiative activists in other states, he cut his eye teeth by co-sponsoring a successful initiative to roll back Washington's government programs for affirmative action in hiring, college admissions and contracting.
He turned that main campaign for I-200 over to radio talk show host John Carlson, who had earlier sponsored anti-crime initiatives, and moved on to his anti-tax theme.
Love him or hate him, he's been largely successful. Over the past five years, he has qualified five initiatives and voters have approved four. These include $30 license tabs, a plan designed to derail Sound Transit's light rail program, and two measures to curb the rise in property taxes.
Along the way, he became the Pied Piper of Mukilteo to legions of backers who liked his efforts to hobble tax collectors and his bid to let voters have the final word on all tax increases.
His 2003 effort, though, was a clunker.
Eyman fended off legislative efforts to restrict the initiative process and took partial credit for a no-new-taxes fix to the state budget's $2.6 billion revenue gap. But lawmakers passed a $4 billion transportation finance package, including a nickel-a-gallon increase in the 23-cent gas tax, just months after state voters had rejected a fatter package.
And Eyman's big initiative drive, to stiffen the limits on state spending and taxing, never caught fire and 2003 was the first time in years without an Eyman-branded measure on the ballot.
Some critics said the Legislature is no longer cowed by Eyman and that he's washed up.
Eyman didn't go away. He dusted himself off and spent the last half of the year writing and promoting his 2004 effort. Knowing he needed something with political sex appeal, he decided to promote a property tax cut.
"For years, people were telling me '$30 license tabs are great, but what about doing something about my property taxes?'" Eyman says.
At first he said he would punish the Legislature for the gas-tax vote by knocking a similar amount of money out of the state government treasury -- cutting the state-collected property tax by 25 percent.
Small problem: that money goes to public schools. After hearing the howls, Eyman eventually switched his initiative to local property taxes, exempting school levies and other voter-approved taxes.
He went through 12 drafts, filed with the secretary of state and available on the Internet, before rolling out the supposedly final proposal a few days ago.
Reaction comes quickly ...
City and county officials came unglued, saying the $650 million hit would cripple local government and the very programs people demand, such as safe streets. King County Assessor Scott Noble, a longtime Eyman critic, called the plan "a weapon of mass destruction when it comes to tax initiatives."
Sinderman said it's Eyman's latest cynical ploy to make money by stirring the troops with an irresponsible red-meat initiative.
"Clearly, he is desperate," Sinderman says. "This is his annual fishing expedition, to see if anybody bites and sends him money."
Eyman says the critics' reaction was overblown to the point of being funny. He says taxing districts can avoid the cuts altogether if they can persuade their voters to keep the tax bite the same, or even higher. Governments can consolidate, prioritize and cut, he says.
"I guess the good point is that this is being taken seriously. I mean, the mayor of Seattle goes on the radio to talk about this!"
But he concedes that his fate, and the new initiative's, hangs in the balance.
"It all boils down to, who donates the money and who gets the signatures - it's our supporters."
Translation: Eyman is soliciting contributions to hire signature-gatherers this winter and spring. If the hired guns and volunteers collect enough signatures - roughly 250,000 - then Eyman's on the ballot. If he fails to qualify for a second year in a row, he could be toast.
Eyman sounds cocky.
"It's the most confident I've ever been about an initiative. The others were all practices. This is the big game. This is the homecoming game."
David Ammons is the AP's state political writer and has covered the
statehouse since 1971. He may be reached at P.O. Box 607, Olympia,
WA, 98507, or at email@example.com.
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