Progressives meet Eyman's push with their own initiative

A new effort aims to force closer reviews of tax breaks for businesses.
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Tim Eyman reacts to a state Supreme Court ruling in a case over one of his initiatives.

A new effort aims to force closer reviews of tax breaks for businesses.

Matter and anti-matter collided Wednesday at the Washington Secretary of State's office in Olympia.

In that office, two groups announced an upcoming petition drive to scrutinize most of Washington's tax exemptions to see if they are worth it. That announcement came minutes after professional initiative promoter Tim Eyman and his allies submitted their new initiative ballot to the Secretary of State.

The groups supporting a look at tax breaks saw a complete contrast between their effort and Eyman's work. Steve Zemke of the organization Tax Sanity said of the tax-break proposal, "It's pushing back from the progressive side. ... We have a revenue problem in this state, and Eyman has made it worse."

"Tim Eyman loves corporations and corporate lobbyist love Tim Eyman," said Andrew Villeneuve of the Northwest Progressive Institute, referring to major corporate interests backing past anti-tax initiatives.

Their organizations are preparing an initiative proposal to send to the Washington Legislature early next year. The basic idea is for Washington's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee to study every one of the state's 640 tax exemptions that are not required by the feds and the state Constitution. The committee would then decide whether each should be kept, eliminated or changed.

Currently, JLARC is an advisory committee of legislators and others who review tax exemptions, but has no authority to actually decide to on exemption matters. That authority resides with the Legislature. The proposed initiative would switch that authority to JLARC.

Since 2007, JLARC has recommended terminating seven tax exemptions, allowing 12 more to expire and having 99 continue. And it has sought clarification from the Legislature about the goals for 40. The Legislature has eliminated only a handful of exemptions. This year, the House Democrats want to eliminate 11 tax exemptions with the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus equally adamant about keep all 11.

Zemke said the two organizations are floating this concept as a trial balloon to collect feedback to fine-tune their future initiative petition.

Meanwhile, Eyman, Mike Fagan and Jack Fagan filed their anti-tax initiative a few minutes prior to the two groups' announcement. 

"This is protection against Olympia's propensity to raise taxes," Eyman said.

The proposed ballot measure would:

  • Require a statewide advisory ballot each year on whether the public supports a constitutional amendment to require two-thirds approval of new taxes and tax hikes.
  • Limit the time period of all tax increases, tax extensions and repeals of tax exemptions to one year.
  • Require that all legislators' votes on tax increases, tax exemptions and tax extensions to be noted on all state voters' pamphlets. The requirement would also apply to the governor's record.
  • Eliminate these requirements when the Legislature agrees to send a two-thirds-majority-for-tax-matters constitutional amendment to a public referendum.

The longtime anti-tax trio is undecided whether it will seek a November ballot or seek having the Legislature vote on whether to approve or take such a measure to a public ballot in 2014. A November ballot would mean they need to collect 246,372 signatures and turn them in to the Washington Secretary of State's office by July 5. The legislative route would give them all year to collect the signatures.

Eyman declined to say whether he has financial backers for this effort. Eyman also declined to say whether he believed new tax exemptions should be subject to the same one-year limit before being re-legislated as his initiative proposes for tax increases.  

The proposed petition raises questions of whether a referendum binds future legislation to a one-year limit, and whether all the planks in this proposal are part of one measure or several measures. A public ballot can have no more than one issue on it. Eyman contends the measure is one item because all the planks address taxes. "It all has to do with state tax measures," Eyman said.

Eyman has pushed anti-tax public ballots since the 1990s. He has had several successful measures to require any tax increases to be passed by two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate — measures that the Legislature always nullified after two years, which is legal. 

Two months ago, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the two-thirds requirement is unconstitutional, meaning only a public referendum can be used to add a two-thirds requirement to the constitution. And only the Legislature can set that process in motion.

Mike Fagan, a Spokane City Council member, said: "As one legislator to my state legislator colleagues, it is time."

The Washington Attorney General's office declined to comment on those legal questions Monday, citing its practice of not commenting on pending legislation or ballot measures. 

Eyman pointed to efforts by Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, to vet proposed and existing tax exemptions on their effectiveness, as well as putting time limits for the exemptions to remain in effect before renewal. "That same level of scrutiny should apply to tax increases," Eyman said.

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8