Citizens group likely to get on fall ballot
Permanent Offense's 201,000 signatures probably enough to help Initiative 776

From staff reports

OLYMPIA _ 6/20/02 - The citizens initiative group Permanent Offense delivered 201,000 signatures to state officials on Wednesday, making it likely that their latest tax-limiting initiative will appear on the fall ballot.

"We're grateful to be here with this many at this time," said one of the group's leaders, Kennewick retiree Monte Benham. "It's a testament to our supporters."

Initiative backers need 197,734 valid signatures to send a measure to voters. Groups typically try to gather about 20 percent more, in case duplicate or invalid signatures are thrown out by the Secretary of State's Office.

Benham said Permanent Offense is trying to gather another 40,000 signatures now for that "cushion," to ensure that the measure qualifies for the ballot.

"We're not there yet," he said. "It could well turn out that we don't have enough signatures."

Initiative 776 would limit the cost of state license-plate tabs to $30. The group passed a similar "$30 Car Tabs" initiative, I-695, in 1999, but fees have started to move back up in a few urban areas in Western Washington. The additional money there is used to pay for public transit.

I-776 would also strip millions of dollars in funding from Sound Transit, a Puget Sound light-rail project that's been plagued with controversy and setbacks.

Permanent Offense's several previous initiatives turned into battles with business groups, unions and other groups convinced that tax limits would badly damage government. So far, no organized opposition has emerged to take on I-776.

"There's no campaign against this initiative, in part because it's such a lame initiative," said Christian Sinderman, a Seattle political consultant who led the opposition to last year's I-747. Voters approved that initiative, which requires public votes on property tax increases of more than 1 percent.

The new measure only affects a small part of the state, he said, and there are legal questions whether a ballot measure can overturn local voters' previous approval of Sound Transit.

Permanent Offense, which had grown into a powerful force in state politics over the past few years, suffered a lasting black eye in February when leader Tim Eyman admitted to secretly diverting more than $200,000 in campaign donations to his private bank account and lying about it. The state is pressing charges against him and the group -- but not Benham or the group's other leaders, Spokane's Jack and Mike Fagan. A trial is slated for this summer.

Eyman's confession stripped some of the group's support, leaders acknowledge, but they say their anti-tax message is what voters are interested in, not Eyman's actions.

Benham said that when all the signatures are tallied, he thinks that about 60 percent will have been gathered by volunteers. The rest were gathered by a Tacoma-based signature-gathering company paid $1.25 per signature by the group.

Sinderman said he thinks Permanent Offense already has all the signatures it needs.

"This is a pretty tired act," he said. "Every year they come in and say, `We're scratching and clawing for those final signatures.'

"They have the signatures already -- they've bought them," said Sinderman. "Anyone with a goofy idea and a quarter-million dollars can buy their way onto the ballot."

Permanent Offense had raised $330,892 by the beginning of this month and spent $296,741, according to financial disclosure forms it filed with the state.

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