Eyman Gets Good Lawyers

A COUPLE MONTHS ago, I was lunching with a Democratic state representative who shall remain nameless but who is fairly moderate (i.e., from a non-Seattle district). But when I brought up Tim Eyman, the reaction was quick, rude, and dismissive: "Well, we all know he's just in it for the money."

Well, no, we don't. Regardless of Eyman's personal benefit from his initiative campaigns, he shows every symptom of being a True Believer. And a party partisan. But that's beside the point. Eyman's motivation or persistence only matter because his initiatives pass. And lawmakers have now lost their last chance to be dismissive. Eyman is now using good lawyers!

This has not been Eyman's best year; for the first time, an Eyman-sponsored signature-gathering drive failed, the result of, among other things, having too many balls in the air at once. As usual, many were quick to proclaim the end of his era. But a funny thing happened on the way to Tim's political funeral. Twice in the past two months, the state Supreme Court has rejected legal challenges to the constitutionality of an Eyman-associated initiative.

In the first instance, in September, the state's highest court ruled not once but twice that Initiative 18, sponsored by King County's jail-guard union in consultation with Eyman, must go to the voters. That's the bid to shrink the King County Council from 13 seats to nine. The County Council, recognizing the inevitable, then voted 12-1 to put it on the ballotbut delayed the vote from this month until next year.

Then, two weeks ago, the Supreme Court upheld Eyman's Initiative 776, the "$30 means $30" revisit to license-plate renewals that, among other things, strips away 20 percent of Sound Transit's budget. Eyman used voters' long-standing distrust of Sound Transit as a key selling point in his campaign.

ALL THIS SUGGESTS that Eyman is more politically sophisticated, and partisan, than many people thinkand, for that matter, that "Eyman" is shorthand not just for Tim but an entire team of political consultants, lawyers, think tanks, and other advocates for whom Eyman is the primary public face. Next up for the Eyman crew, besides I-18, is a measure he will be pushing at the Legislature next yearand, when Olympia rejects it, passing along to the votersthat would reduce the state's property taxes by 25 percent.

It would be a dramatic tax reduction for ordinary Washingtonians. It would be a kick in the gut to our state's already-struggling public schools. And it would pass.

Not only would it pass, it would ensure the turnout of large numbers of antitax voters in a year when Republican candidates for president and governor will need that sort of help. I-18, too, is Republican-friendly.

Of course, I-18's lead sponsor is a union of government employees, the jail guards, upset that they (along with the rest of the county) were affected by government budget cutbacks. Yet, in Eyman's hands, the initiative has become yet another tool for reducing government to save taxpayer money.

SOUND TRANSIT, in the crosshairs of I-776, insists that it has cleaned up its act since its nightmarish beginning. Its contentious light-rail project will move ahead, regardless of I-776, the still-simmering arguments pro and con, or the emergence of a monorail project that dreams of going citywide.

The monorail, too, was the result of an initiative. That initiative considered one questionshould Seattle build a monorail?rather than regional public-transit policy. And the inability to consider the big picture is why legislators hate Eyman. They argue that while they can't shift piles of money from one part of "the government" to another (it's that Constitution), Eyman's initiatives appeal to voters' desire to reduce our overall tax bill, regardless of district, taxing agency, or issue. For at least some of Eyman's supporters, it matters far more where the money's coming from than where it would go.

How much is too much? That's up to us. Eyman says he'll keep filing initiatives to cut taxes so long as lawmakers and bureaucrats keep trying to raise more money. Tellingly, he doesn't call for reform of the tax structure itself. Washington state's overall tax burden is not particularly bad, as states go. But especially in the absence of a state income tax, the burden falls disproportionately on individuals and on the less wealthy. That's why Eyman's initiatives pass and why they fall so neatly into a larger Republican political strategy.

Next in the crosshairs: the County Council and our public schools. Public officials, business leaders, parents, and other prospective opponents had better take Tim Eyman seriously in the coming year. The courts won't be bailing them out this time.


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