Tim Eyman's great year

You might love to hate him, but the populist initiative king is having a banner year – and even liberals are finding some areas where Eyman's laws are helping. Maybe you should send him a thank-you card.
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Tim Eyman, the Democrats' bête noire: You can only get away with blaming him for so long.

You might love to hate him, but the populist initiative king is having a banner year – and even liberals are finding some areas where Eyman's laws are helping. Maybe you should send him a thank-you card.

Few political obits are as much anticipated as Tim Eyman's, but rumors of the Mukilteo watch salesman-turned-populist-crusader's demise are, as Mark Twain once said about his own, greatly exaggerated. In fact, these days, Eyman is in his prime. Maybe there's a reason his email-Christmas card depicted him as a dancing elf. His victory prance seems anomalous since the state's Blue-ward shift has marginalized the state conservatives. Democrats control Olympia and they've taken much of the suburbs from the GOP. But Eyman has advantages as a political player: he doesn't need to lead, he can cherry pick his issues, he's not a party animal, and sometimes, he does things that prove to be popular not only with Reds, but Blues and Purples too. That freedom has turned him, despite the vitriol of his opponents, into a political player on a par with Gov. Christine Gregoire and House Speaker Frank Chopp. Arguably, he's the most influential conservative in the state. Let's take a quick survey of his domain. Last fall, voters approved the Eyman initiative, I-960, that makes it more difficult for the legislature to raise taxes. It also requires that the public get email alerts when tax legislation is proposed with estimates of how much they will cost. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that the initiative is already working, indeed, it's "rattling" Olympia as constituents are demanding to know the details of proposed tax increase bills and legislators are thinking twice about wallet-draining proposals. Also late last year, the state Supreme Court knocked down another Eyman initiative, I-747, that put limits on property tax increases. Another failure for Eyman, right? Hardly. With the moral leverage of the I-960 passage, a looming election year for Gregoire, and Democrats looking to expand their conquest of swing districts, the Democrat-led legislature leapt into action in a special session to codify the basics of Eyman's anti-tax initiative into law. Was it a win-win? No, it was an "I win." Eyman dissed the legislature as panderers while also claiming credit for the legislative victory. Eyman has always been out of step with Seattle liberals. I remember some years ago, we featured him on the cover of Seattle Weekly in a story in which he provocatively said what he would do "If I ran Seattle." Readers trashed the issue with anti-Eyman stickers and one reader faxed a copy of the cover with a little Hitler mustache drawn on Eyman's face--it looked rather convincing given the brown suit Eyman wore in the cover shot. But the residents on this islet of the Blue archipelago continually under-estimate the fact that much as they hate Tim Eyman, many of his ideas are popular and, dare I say it, not radical but mainstream. Some of Eyman's laws are even producing results that frustrated liberal Seattleites are happy about. Mainly, I-900, the Eyman performance audit initiative which passed in 2005. It is proving a boon. The idea was to unleash the state auditor, currently Democrat Brian Sonntag, to look into the performance of public entities, ranging from state agencies to local ports, stadium authorities--whatever--and suss out problems. Opponents of I-900 complained that it would be used as a political tool by Sonntag (considered by some in Olympia to be a grandstander) and Eyman, who could use the audits to push initiatives. That's turned out to be true. But is it a bad thing? Performance audits are squishier than straight-forward financial audits because they inevitably get into policy areas--matters not of math but interpretation, priorities, methodologies, management. Nevertheless, Sonntag's audits are producing information that the public is happy to have. Exhibit A: the audit of the Port of Seattle, a nearly impenetrable public entity that has had the whiff of waste, arrogance and corruption about it for years. The recent audit of the Port has unleashed a firestorm of criticism. It has day-lighted questionable practices and scratched the Port's coat of Teflon that has frustrated the media, citizen activists and Port-watchers for years. It has also goaded the state and the Port to take some action toward reforms, even as they deny there really is a problem. Eyman is often ridiculed for silly public stunts, like showing up in a gorilla suit. But Eyman's outrage over the Port at a recent meeting seems like the normal, shared outrage many people feel at displays of Port arrogance. No matter what you think of Eyman, it's hard not to cheer him on when the Port is his whipping boy. Eyman has said he will push a King County initiative to eliminate the Port's ability to levy property taxes--an idea previously pushed by former Port Commission Alex Fisken, a liberal Democrat who works for the city. Eyman also likes the idea of having the county take over the port and wants all of the audit's recommendations implemented. In the meantime, the feds have opened a criminal inquiry into the Port. Some audit skeptics are waiting to see if there's a there there in terms of criminal activity, but the public has a lesser standard. Proof of waste and abuse of public trust is enough. The bottom line: Tim Eyman passed a law that jump-started the process of getting to the bottom of one of the biggest sinkholes in local governance accountability. There may be some grandstanding going on, but maybe that's what it takes. Transportation is another area where Eyman's populism might prove popular. Recent audits have prodded and found fault with Sound Transit (they failed to deliver light rail on time and on budget as promised in 1996) and the Department of Transportation (not enough done on congestion relief, slow progress on some repair projects). There are critics of Sound Transit and the WSDOT on both sides of the political aisle who are ready to believe the worst of these entities. But the roads-friendly Eyman is also honing new plans to deal with congestion and responding to Gregoire's recent declaration that 520 will be tolled. In his 2008 initiative, he'll look to funnel funds into car-friendly congestion relief schemes and he seek to limit how road tolls can be used. The tolling debate is moving to the front burner and no one is sure where the public stands. I talked recently with a very knowledgeable transportation policy veteran who is part of a group looking at regional tolling. He said that the public is of two minds about tolls, according to polling. The public likes "user fees," but hates "tolls." While many people would not object to paying a specific toll to pay for a specific bridge's construction (as with the original Lake Washington bridges, or with new Tacoma Narrows), policy makers are looking at tolls as part of more widespread revenue generating schemes. Already, the notion has been put forth that if 520 is tolled, I-90 must be tolled also, otherwise more chaos and congestion will ensue. But by that logic, you can argue that all major commuter routes should be tolled. Some policy wonks do. Eyman says putting tolls on roads to pay for other projects is simply taxation by another name. He'll likely find support for limiting tolls: from people who hate them on general principle to Seattle area commuters who see limiting tolls as reasonable. Then there are social progressives who object to tolling from a social justice perspective because they fall hard on the poor and are often a precursor to privatization. In short, Eyman's initiative may define the early tolling debate before anyone has a chance to propose anything more ambitious, and it will likely define tolls as unpopular taxes, not acceptable "user fees." It looks like Tim Eyman good run will continue. More audits rooting out public abuse, hamstrung lawmakers in Olympia, Democrats eager to codify tax limits. Plus, he's in the driver's seat when it comes the future of transportation funding. No wonder he's feeling like a jolly elf. He's got good reason to be frisky


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.

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