Reclaim an NBA team for Seattle? Is this a fantasy in our confused political state?

Lawmakers dream they'll see the Sonics back in Seattle, alive as you or me. But imagine the ire of Tim Eyman if it involves taxing needy athletes!

Lawmakers dream they'll see the Sonics back in Seattle, alive as you or me. But imagine the ire of Tim Eyman if it involves taxing needy athletes!

Talk from Olympia lawmakers about establishing a so-called “jock tax”  to help pay for a Seattle National Basketball Association facility better suited to league commissioner David Stern brought an abrupt vow from Washington state Shadow Gov. Tim Eyman to block such a measure.

The one-time wristwatch vendor from Mukilteo turned big-time anti-tax advocate is considered by many to be the single most powerful person in the Evergreen State. By one count, his 13-year initiative/referendum record stands at 9-4-5-? (nine wins, four losses, five “failed to qualify” and an undetermined number "too peculiar to contemplate").

Seattle hasn't had an NBA franchise since the SuperSonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder three years ago, but plenty of athletes in other pro sports play here. Eyman indicated he would launch an immediate initiative campaign to see to it that state lawmakers would have a difficult time ever levying a tax on such professionals.

“Any such tax could not become law without receiving at least 100 percent support from both houses of the Legislature,” said Eyman, sporting a basketball jersey reading “Slam-Dunk the Jock Tax!”

Such a revenue source already is in place in California, which nicks Seattle pro athletes and others for income tax when they play in the Golden State.

Eyman argued, however, that such a tax is unfair and that it’s a misconception about pro athletes making per year what most Americans won’t earn during their lifetimes.

“Granted, the perception is that of the rich pro athlete,” he said. “I concede, for example, that the NBA player-salary average this year is about $5 million but that’s skewed by a few making four or five times that much. Why, there are players in the NBA, NFL, and big-league baseball and hockey right now getting by on less than 500 grand a season!”

Supporters of a jock tax believe that tapping such potential revenue could raise millions of dollars a year. They cite information showing that California annually taps pro athletes for $100 million. Such a sum, they acknowledge, isn’t realistic in Washington because California boasts many more pro teams than there are here.

One-time Berkeley Barb sports editor Red Ruffensore observed: “California’s got got five major-league baseball teams, three in pro hockey, three in the NFL, and four in the NBA, if you count the L.A. Clippers.”

Yet, Washington-state supporters say, if a jock-tax revenue stream existed here, it could help toward raising the billion-odd dollars it might require to transform the long-time SuperSonics’ home at Seattle Center into a facility Stern could embrace. That could persuade Stern to help move another city’s franchise to Seattle.

The commissioner, who enabled the transfer of the Sonics franchise to Oklahoma, is said to have intimated in private that KeyArena, the place he repeatedly praised as state-of-the-art after its mid-‘90s renovation, is now “the worst basketball facility this side of Baghdad High.”

For his part, Eyman warned that the “slippery-slope” argument that helped win the debate last year for those opposed to raising taxes on Washington state zillionaires also figures into his anti-jock-tax beliefs.

“First they’ll tax pro athletes,” he said, “and pretty soon they’ll be hitting up visiting college jocks for 10 percent of their meal per diems.”

The threat of another Eyman initiative has prompted the caution in Olympia and Seattle that had been predicted by many.

An associate of Rob McKenna said the state attorney general isn’t sure whether such a tax would be legal and would await the judgment from those in states with which he sided in challenging the legality of “Obamacare.”

 A spokesman for Mike McGinn said the Seattle mayor might approve such a revenue measure, but only if it exempted out-of-state pro athletes who commuted to games via bicycle.

An aide to nominal Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire said constituents “needn’t be reminded that, after all, Gov. Eyman — ahem — Mr. Eyman is a major force here.”

Indeed, many believe he’s become, if nothing else, the state’s most powerful unelected political figure, with the possible exception of Dennis Kucinich.


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