Among the most recurring features of our local politics, like salmon returning to spawn in their seasonal regularity, is Tim Eyman having his initiatives thrown out by the courts.
Of the 11 Eyman initiatives passed by voters here going back nearly a quarter century, nine have been either fully or partially blocked by the courts.
Seems like a pattern, no?
It happened again this past week, when the state Supreme Court rejected Eyman’s latest gambit to cut car tabs to $30, Initiative 976. It wasn’t a close call — the ruling was unanimous, and it had been pretty easy even for legal rubes like me to spot the obvious flaws (such as the ballot title saying the opposite of what the measure actually did).
Cue the outrage, directed at all the wrong people.
Eyman blamed the justices, calling them “corrupt,” and also blamed Attorney General Bob Ferguson, because his office wrote the ballot title (except they copied it almost word-for-word from Eyman’s own initiative text, and Eyman had accepted it, as the court noted).
The state Republican Party, which continues to align itself with Eyman despite the spotty track record, blamed the winners of the lawsuit.
“Washingtonians want $30 car tabs,” the party said in a tweet. “It’s not that hard. The people deserve better than these self-serving Democrats ruining our state.”
But do “we” the people want $30 car tabs? Some clearly do, but many keep saying they do not. This is the rub of the whole thing: Eyman’s car-tab cutting measures always contain in them some poison pill that is an affront to choose-your-own-destiny democracy.
In this case, voters in places like Wahkiakum and Klickitat counties were deciding for us here in central Puget Sound that we aren’t allowed to tax ourselves to build light rail or fund our buses.
Initiative 976 was rejected both in Seattle and in Sound Transit’s light rail taxing district — the two places that actually pay dramatically higher car-tab fees, because they had voted to impose these taxes on themselves.
That’s why we’re always fighting about this. Eyman says “let the voters decide,” but he doesn’t mean it when it comes to mass transit. Voters here have decided over and over again to pay for mass transit by taxing cars. Eyman keeps trying to override the will of those people.
Make no mistake, light rail is the real target. What really gets Eyman “giddy,” he told an Eastside GOP group a few years back, “is the idea of ripping the heart out of Sound Transit. This is our one chance to be able to gut ’em like a pig … wouldn’t it be fun to do it one more time?”
If only it was just one more time! But the cycle of outrage, initiative campaign, court loss, outrage now promises to continue again, right on its predetermined schedule. It’s why Eyman didn’t seem that upset by this latest loss — it’s all just another job opportunity. The court dryly noted that Eyman had filed 13 separate car tab initiatives in 2018 before choosing to go with I-976, so he’s no doubt got another one in the can (I’m really going out on a limb here, but I predict that future one will get tossed by some future court).
How can we end this political pantomime? State lawmakers have sometimes taken up Eyman proposals, and they should now go ahead and give voters what they want. Which means slashing car tabs — and also transportation spending — in those places that keep voting for it.
This year the state Transportation Department put out data on how much each of the state’s 39 counties pays in transportation taxes compared with the return in project spending. The top 10 recipient counties, the ones that pay the least for the road projects they get, are all — you probably guessed — the pro-Eyman red counties.
Example: For every $1 the residents of Wahkiakum County in Southwest Washington paid in transportation taxes in 2019, they received back nearly seven times that, $6.81 per resident, in transportation spending. Despite this largesse, the county voted for Eyman’s tax-slashing I-976 by 37 percentage points.
Six counties in the state get back more than twice in benefits what they pay out in taxes. After Wahkiakum, the other five are Ferry, Garfield, Kittitas, Adams and Lincoln counties, all in Central or Eastern Washington. King County was about break-even in the ratio of spending to taxes collected, at $1.10.
So I agree with Republicans: Let’s give ‘em what they want. Which is to leave Seattle and King County alone to tax their cars to the moon if they wish. Then cut car tabs elsewhere around the state, while also slashing transportation spending in those counties to match.
Republicans are right: It’s not that hard.