By Bill Sheets Herald Writer
If anti-tax activist Tim Eyman’s initiative this year sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been approved four times before.
Earlier versions of Initiative 1185 — requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature for any tax increase at the state level — were approved in 1993, 1998, 2007 and 2010.
The initiative also requires the Legislature to approve any fee increase with a majority vote as opposed to delegating that authority to a board or commission.
The state Constitution allows the Legislature and governor to suspend initiatives after two years, which was done most recently in early 2010 during the budget crisis.
Eyman successfully hit back with the last version of this measure in the fall of 2010 and now he’s trying to beat Olympia to the punch to prevent any new taxes or tax hikes in 2013.
“The more recent a vote of the people, the harder it is for Olympia to ignore it,” he said.
Lawmakers in 2010 said they needed to raise some taxes and close loopholes to bridge a $2.8 billion budget gap and preserve education, human services and health care programs. Majority Democrats then raised taxes on items such as cigarettes, candy, pop, beer and bottled water to help balance the budget.
Now, though, with the economy still trying to recover and the state struggling to pay for education, this is not the time to tie legislators’ hands behind their backs, said Doug MacDonald, a former state transportation secretary who is a spokesman for the “No on I-1185” campaign.
“You do have to have reform,” he said. “But you can’t reform things and still run the system on the cheap and expect that some of the things that are very wrong are going to be fixed.”
Perhaps worse, he said, it exacerbates the us vs. them partisanship of the type prevalent at the national level.
“The process of looking at revenue has been very strident and people are looking over their shoulder all the time,” he said. “I think it poisons the ability of the Legislature to function effectively.”
Eyman, pointing out that voters have approved the two-thirds requirement four times, says it’s the only thing keeping lawmakers from running amok and raising taxes more than they have.
“It’s the lobbying effect, the political impact of the voters saying, ‘This is what we want,’ ” he said.
The two sides have a back-and-forth about who benefits the most from the two-thirds rule.
About $1.3 million had been donated to the initiative as of Friday, according to state financial records. This includes $495,000 from the Olympia-based Association of Washington Business, $110,000 from BP oil and $15,000 from the Liberty Initiative Fund, a libertarian-leaning group based in Virginia.
Eyman said nearly all of this went toward signature gatherers to get the measure on the ballot.
Opponents, meanwhile, have raised only slightly more than $50,000 — most of it in two chunks of $25,000 each from the Washington Education Association (teachers union) and the state chapter of the Service Employees International Union.
“Eyman’s initiative is so poorly written that under 1185 it only takes a majority vote to give corporations a special tax loophole — but then requires a two-thirds vote to eliminate that same loophole. That’s wrong,” says the argument against I-1185 in the state voters pamphlet, prepared in part by MacDonald.
Eyman counters that many of the tax increases in 2010 affected lower-income people. He says in that same year, the group fighting his I-1053 raised more than $1.6 million, including $600,000 from the state employees union and $250,000 from the SEIU, according to state records.
About $1.5 million was donated in 2010 to support I-1053, including large chunks from BP, Conoco Phillips, Tesoro and the Washington Bankers Association.
This year’s initiative also would continue two other provisions that Eyman says help keep legislators accountable — advisory votes and email alerts about how legislators voted on any proposed tax increases.
As a result of Eyman’s I-960 in 2007, voters will get the chance this fall to say whether they would maintain or repeal the laws that eliminate a tax break for large banks and extend an existing fuel tax paid by oil refiners and gasoline sellers. The votes are advisory and are not binding on next year’s Legislature.
It will cost about $120,000 to include printed summaries of these measures in the voters pamphlet, state officials have said. Eyman says it’s worth it.
“An advisory vote of the people at least gives the Legislature the views of the voters and gives the voters information about the bill increasing taxes and provides the voters with legislators’ names and contact information and how they voted on the bill,” Eyman said in a written response.
Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.