The Rough Road to 'No'

The campaign opposing I-912 has an intriguing regional strategy to overcome voter hatred of the gas tax.

Back in July, Initiative 912 looked invincible. Fueled by grassroots antipathy toward a 9.5-cent increase in the gas tax, a volunteer effort collected more than 400,000 signatures in 30 days. Then in August, a little bad weather hit New Orleans. For weeks, the airwaves and newspapers were filled with the gruesome reality of what happens when government does not invest in infrastructure. Now an Elway poll suggests that I-912 might be out of favor among voters. The campaign to stop the measure has a savvy approach to the election and promises to have enough money to deliver a message. Can voter hatred of the gas tax actually be overcome?

Under the leadership of Gov. Christine Gregoire, the Legislature passed a much needed $8.5 billion transportation package earlier this year. The 9.5-cent incremental increase in the gas tax over three years makes up the biggest part of the package, accounting for $5.5 billion in new transportation revenue that can be used only for state highways and the Washington State Ferries, per the state constitution. The emphasis of the package is on safety—such as replacing structures at risk of collapse, like the Alaskan Way Viaduct along Seattle's waterfront and the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge that connects Bellevue and Seattle, and improving highways around the state that have high accident rates. The transportation package would pay for 274 projects in 32 counties. I-912 would repeal the gas-tax increase and scuttle many of these projects.

I-912 backers claim that their crusade is driven by everything from anger over the disputed gubernatorial election results last year to discontent with the Washington State Department of Transportation. Independent Seattle pollster Stuart Elway says, however, that the largest group of I-912 supporters, 44 percent, simply think the price of gas is too high. Of course, if I-912 passes, there's no guarantee that the price of gas will come down by three cents—the only part of the increase in effect to date. Oil companies may just keep the change.

While that aspect of Elway's poll seems commonsensical, other findings were quite startling. In June, the poll showed I-912 leading 55 percent to 40 percent. By August, support had dropped to 52 percent to 45 percent. And in September's survey, I-912 actually trailed 41 percent to 48 percent. The polls surveyed 400 registered state voters with an error margin of plus or minus 5 percent.

"I hypothesize that the Katrina event has made people think pretty seriously about infrastructure and its vulnerability," says Elway.

Unfortunately, Elway admits, he may have inadvertently skewed his results by changing his method of asking voters about I-912. In all three surveys, he read voters the official ballot summary that explains that the measure would eliminate the new tax. In the first two surveys, he also explained that a "yes" vote would repeal the gas tax and a "no" vote would keep the gas tax before asking people how they would cast their ballots. In the third survey, however, he just asked people how they would vote. Elway thinks that the startling results in the third survey may reflect some confusion.

No-on-912 spokesperson Mark Funk is encouraged by the trend in Elway's polling, especially because the "no" campaign has just begun advertising. TV ads, direct mail, and literature will try to rally voters to support the gas tax and transportation package by voting no on I-912. The campaign's regional strategy is distinct from earlier efforts on behalf of transportation taxes. "It's a campaign quite unlike any campaign run in Washington state before," says Funk. "These campaigns have a track record of success in Colorado and San Diego." All the advertising will highlight projects in specific communities. For instance, if you live in Snohomish County, you'll hear about improvements to state Highway 9. In Pierce County, the ads will mention state Highway 16, and in King County, the outreach will be about the viaduct.

Campaign Connections' Cathy Allen, a Democratic political consultant who is opposed to I-912 but isn't working with the "no" campaign, says the strategy is good. "The only hope this thing has," she says, "is if people know they are thumbing their noses at roads and bridges right next to them." Allen is pessimistic, however. "It's impossible to stop it. The gas tax is such an unpopular tax." Allen also thinks the "no" campaign doesn't have enough money.

One past statewide campaign in support of transportation taxes had more resources—2002's pro–Referendum 51, with $4.5 million—and still it lost. As of Tuesday, Oct. 18, the No-on-912 campaign had raised $2.2million.

Allen says the No-on-912 campaign needs to contact around 300,000 voters three to five times with its message, and it doesn't have enough money. "No" spokesperson Funk agrees with Allen's 300,000 voter figure but claims the campaign will raise the necessary money.

in the Meantime, the Yes-on-912 campaign doesn't have any money for voter contact. At press time, the campaign only had around $225,000 in the bank and had no advertising under way. "No" spokesperson Funk notes that the "yes" campaign does have a fund-raising letter circulating, signed by conservative activists and KVI-AM talk-show host John Carlson. Repeated calls for comment from the "yes" campaign were not returned.

Similar grassroots antitax campaigns have not done significant advertising and still have been successful. Funk admits the "no" campaign faces a difficult task: "If we win this thing by 10 votes, it will be a landslide."

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