By Bill Sheets, Herald writer
MUKILTEO — Tim Eyman grew up in what he once described as “sort of a cowboy area” of Yakima, and his recent flurry of activity in a sense resembles an old Western shoot-out.
The professional initiative instigator is riling up the townsfolk, either fer’ him or agin’ him, more than he has for some time.
“You have to come out with all guns a-blazin’,” Eyman said. “It’s the only thing that ever works.”
Emboldened by his success in helping stop the deployment of traffic enforcement cameras in his hometown of Mukilteo, and by the passage of another of his statewide tax-limiting measures, Eyman is blasting away on several flanks.
He’s fighting plans for traffic cameras in Monroe and Bellingham. He spoke against a possible increase of car-tab fees by Snohomish County. He exchanged fire with the state Transportation Commission over its decision to raise ferry fares 2½ percent, and opposes its recommendation for a $3.50 toll on Highway 520, the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, to help pay for a new span.
All of this comes just a year after some editorial writers were speculating about the end of Eyman.
After sponsoring several successful initiatives, most aimed at cutting taxes, Eyman, 44, had been on a bit of a losing streak. His 2008 measure to open carpool lanes to all traffic at non-peak hours lost at the ballot box, as did his 2009 initiative to cap revenue collected by cities, counties and the state.
Whether he struck just the right chord with voters this year, was helped by the anti-tax sentiment nationwide, or both, Eyman is back.
“It was just an interesting year, where it was like everything we’d been advocating for 11 years suddenly became monstrously mainstream and widely accepted,” he said.
This year’s I-1053 requires any state tax increase to be approved by two-thirds majority in the Legislature, and any fee increase by a simple majority. Eyman got a similar measure passed in 2007, I-960, but it was overturned this year by the Legislature under a law that allows initiatives to be suspended after two years.
Fighting taxes is still clearly close to Eyman’s heart, but he says his emphasis now is on letting voters decide.
“This is not a debate over is a toll good or bad, is a ferry fare increase good or bad, are car tab fees good or bad. It’s a question of who should decide.”
Still, Eyman has strong opinions on each of his current pet issues. He claims the motives for traffic cameras are strictly financial and not motivated by safety, despite some officials’ insistence to the contrary. He describes government as a wild stallion that will run amok with taxing and spending if it is not reined in.
“Every initiative that I’ve passed is trying to put a saddle on that wild stallion and trying to focus it in a particular direction,” he said.
Despite those apparent convictions, some say Eyman’s in it for the money. He makes his living from a fund called “Help Us Help Taxpayers,” for which he actively solicits donations.
“He seems to be out showing up at local governments to try to gin up some more work for himself. He just does it as a moneymaker for himself,” said state Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, chairman of House capital budget committee. “If somebody would pay him to run an initiative to outlaw blue monkeys, he’d do it.”
Eyman took out a second, $250,000 mortgage on his house to help gather enough signatures to qualify I-1053 for the ballot. Later, as Dunshee pointed out, oil companies and banks were among those that came to the initiative’s rescue. British Petroleum, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Tesoro were among its donors.
Eyman, though, still has $237,000 to pay on his mortgage, he said. According to state disclosure forms, he made $53,644 last year from Help Us Help Taxpayers and, if 2010 ended now, he would end up with $36,201. He gets half of the fund and his two partners, Mike and Jack Fagan of Spokane, split the rest.
Eyman is beating the bushes — “begging,” he says half jokingly — for contributions to help him pay off that mortgage.
Meanwhile, he’s still beating the drum for his causes. He recently had a sharp exchange with members of the state Transportation Commission over its decision to increase ferry fares by 2 ½ percent.
Eyman argued that although I-1053 doesn’t take effect until Dec. 2, the commission should hold off on any decisions until after then to reflect the intent of the voters in placing fee increases in the hands of the Legislature.
“Nobody’s fingerprints are anywhere on this decision,” he said later, noting the commissioners are appointed, not elected.
Commissioner Richard Ford of Seattle, a former Port of Seattle executive director, said the increase was part of the ferry system’s long-term plan to try to meet expenses. Even with the hike, which takes effect Jan. 1, fares will not come close to covering the system’s costs, officials say.
“It means the rest of the taxpayers pay it,” Ford said. “It costs a lot to run those ferries and the fuel costs have been killing them.”
Eyman says governments will always say that.
“When it comes to government, it’s always a crisis, they’re saying, ‘It’s a crisis now, so we need to bend the rules.’ ”
Crisis or no crisis, governments again are running head-on into Eyman’s single-minded energy and take-no-prisoners tactics.
Eyman employs sarcasm, loaded words such as “arrogant” and “obnoxious” and frequently wears costumes or brightly lettered shirts to get his points across. He uses hyperbole and makes some statements officials claim are untrue. He admits he gets a charge out of butting heads.
It’s those methods, more than his positions on issues, that have some public officials reaching for their verbal rifle racks.
“I despise bullies and people that use lies to gain support when the facts alone won’t do it,” said Tom Williams, a Monroe city councilman who said Eyman falsely questioned the integrity of the council regarding its decision to install traffic cameras in the city.
Eyman had sent out an e-mail regarding the camera issue in Monroe, where the City Council decided to install the cameras in front of two schools.
“No doubt the Mayor and City Council have been wined and dined for months by Arizona’s red-light camera company (ATS) while they’ve pushed for their for-profit cameras surveillance scheme,” the e-mail read.
Not true, Williams said.
“I believe every member of this council has a strong personal character and they represent this city with honor. I find his baseless accusation dangerous and extremely offensive,” he read.
In Mukilteo earlier this year, Eyman accused city officials of conspiring to prevent petitions against traffic cameras from being turned over to the county elections office, according to an e-mail sent to officials. Those petitions eventually became the initiative overwhelmingly approved by voters, which requires a public vote for cameras to be installed and limits fines to $20.
Mayor Joe Marine, who originally supported installing the cameras, said Eyman’s statements are often “rhetoric, half truths, and some of them are just plain lies.”
Eyman said officials discussed at a closed-door meeting how to “justify shredding” the petitions rather than sending them to Snohomish County.
Marine, one of the officials present at the meeting, said officials never discussed withholding the petitions, and “I can guarantee you we never had any discussion about destroying petitions.”
Eyman says he was told afterward by two city council members who had been at the meeting that the officials discussed not sending the petitions to the county. He won’t divulge his sources.
Eyman admits he exaggerated with the “shredding” comment, but stands by his other claim.
Eyman has his supporters in government, or at least those who don’t necessarily oppose him, even among Democrats.
County Councilman Brian Sullivan, who like Eyman lives in Mukilteo, believes Eyman serves an important purpose by shining a light on voters’ wishes.
“The real issue is not Tim, the real issue is the pulse of the electorate and what they’re thinking,” Sullivan said. He said while he agrees with some of Eyman’s initiatives and disagrees with others, government usually finds a way to function, he said.
“When it really hurts, the voters have shown they will step up,” Sullivan said. “They do it for school districts all the time.
“I really do admire his tenacity and how he pulls this off,” he said of Eyman. “I’ve seen plenty of politicians do the same thing except without costumes.”
Eyman says governments use an ends-justify-the-means philosophy when talking about raising revenue, but says that’s not what he’s doing in defending his tactics.
“It would be if it were pure fabrication,” he said. “If you’re nice and polite they’ll ignore you. Just to break through the fog of legislation that happens and people’s busy lives, you have to come in with a battering ram.”
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.