Win some lose some - that has been the story of Tim Eyman's remarkably successful political life: The electorate giveth, but the judiciary taketh away. And then, if he's lucky, the Legislature restoreth. With a special session of the Legislature poised to do just that, it's worth reviewing how we got to this point – again.
This month, Washington voters approved Eyman's Initiative 960, which will make it harder for state government to raise taxes. That law's on the books until further notice. But two days later, the Washington Supreme Court tossed out another of Eyman's initiatives, I-747, which passed handily six years ago and limited property-tax revenue increases to 1 percent per year. With that older initiative stricken, the state reverts to the pre-existing law, which permitted increases of up to 6 percent. Eyman has predicted governments will go into a feeding frenzy - "pigs at the trough" - tearing into their potential windfall of 5 percent multiplied by six years.
They seemed at first to be doing just that. The very next week, the King County Council passed a budget that included a 25-cent bus fare increase, and hikes in both sales and property taxes to finance care for the mentally ill and addicted, reinforcement of levees along the rivers, and creation of a ferry district that would operate the Vashon passenger service, the Elliott Bay water taxi, and five experimental routes on Lake Washington and Puget Sound.
"The council went on a tax-and-fee-raising binge ... that defies logic and harms middle- and lower-income families trying to make ends meet," The Seattle Times proclaimed. In a news release, the council collectively said, "We want to make clear that the revenue votes taken yesterday by Councilmembers have been in development for months and were in no way related to the unexpected ruling last week from the State Supreme Court on Initiative 747."
Exactly why the King County Council felt a need to genuflect toward I-747 isn't entirely clear. A majority of King County voters rejected it. Were they deceived? Did they not mean what they said? Or have circumstances changed so much since 2001 that they have presumably changed their minds? Asked why King County, of all places, should abide by I-747, Eyman says because "working class families and fixed income senior citizens are really struggling right now and their cumulative tax burden - combined federal, state, and local - is taxing them out of the county. Do we really want to have King County be a place where only rich people can afford to live?" Gov. Chris Gregoire called for the Legislature to enact the fallen 1 percent limit. Then her challenger, Republican Dino Rossi, insisted on a special session to enact it before the end of the year. Gregoire first insisted a special session wasn't necessary, then saw which way the wind was blowing and decided it was. So lawmakers will take up the subject on Thursday, Nov. 29.
All this evokes a sense of deja vu. We saw it happen before with Initiative 695, the $30 car-tab measure that made Eyman a household name, back in 1999. I-695 passed overwhelmingly, but opponents sued, and King County Superior Court Judge Robert Alsdorf ruled that the initiative violated the state constitution that a single piece of legislation can address only a single subject.
"Poor Tim Eyman threw a tantrum on Tuesday, tearing up a campaign sign and flinging the shreds around a King County courtroom," wrote John Webster in the Spokane Spokesman-Review at the time. "The fast-talking souvenir watch salesman had just been forced to sit in silence while a judge shredded his attempt to pose as a maker of laws."
But Eyman and his supporters had the last laugh. Elected officials scurried to legislate the fee reduction that the people had approved unconstitutionally. On the same day Alsdorf ruled against the initiative, "Gov. Gary Locke and many legislative leaders wasted no time ... assuring voters the $30 license tabs they approved in November are here to stay – regardless of what a King County judge says," Joseph Turner reported in the Tacoma News Tribune. "'Vehicle license fees were one of the most hated taxes in Washington,' the Democratic governor said. 'Despite the court's ruling today, we have no intention of returning to the old system of high license tab fees. The $30 fees are here to stay.'" The Legislature quickly enacted a law to accomplish what Eyman had tried to do through I-695.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!