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Mmm, Donuts... 

When Tim Eyman and Spokane's Jack and Mike Fagan proposed Initiative 695 to voters in 1999, the choice was clear: Do you want to pay only $30 for vehicle tabs? Notwithstanding the ramifications of the ensuing law (it decimated transportation budgets across the state), the initiative had a clearly stated goal that was easy to either support or oppose.

The Eyman team's latest initiative, 960, is a little more complicated. Highly confusing and highly politically charged -- any Eyman initiative is contentious these days -- it's also almost impossible to sum up in one sentence. Nonetheless, the Secretary of State tries, in this complicated four-part ballot title: "This measure would require two-thirds legislative approval or voter approval for tax increases, legislative approval of fee increases, certain published information on tax-increasing bills, and advisory votes on taxes enacted without voter approval."

Basically, the measure would make it harder for the state to raise taxes and fees. It would do so by broadening the definition of what a tax increase is (thus multiplying the kinds of legislative actions that require a super-majority approval), requiring approval for higher fees and informing the public when tax increases are imminent or when they've already happened.

Put another way, it's like trying to lose weight. Say you're 50 pounds heavy and you've hired George Washington as your personal trainer. Under your old diet, you forced yourself to run three miles every time you wanted something you weren't supposed to have -- a hamburger or a donut or a slice of pizza. Now George is saying you gotta run three miles for pasta and turkey sandwiches, too. Not only that, but every time you want to eat, you have to do a thorough analysis of the calories, carbs, caffeine and sugar in the stuff you want to eat. And you have to run it past George.

Maybe you go for it -- you run the three miles, you eat the donut -- but you still want more. To overeat, you have to get George's permission. (And no more of this "If I don't eat something, I'm totally going to pass out." It's not an emergency unless it's really an emergency.) If you don't get George's approval -- if you keep eating without his permission -- you're eventually going to have to tell him that you did it and see what he says. He may not be happy with you, or he might agree that you needed the sustenance.

Either way, when you're staring down at that donut and weighing the pros and cons, you're going to have to think to yourself, "Is this really worth dealing with that hard-ass George? Or should I just put the donut down?"

Eyman likes the idea of the personal trainer. "If the Legislature is gonna raise taxes, they oughta follow the law, they oughta follow the constitution," he says. "And they oughta let people know they're doing it."

Opponents, though, say the trainer's just out to starve the Legislature with his hoop-jumping and abundant paperwork, making it nearly impossible to keep the body running. (A person could starve waiting to hear back from George.) Not only that, but the Office of Financial Management pegs the cost of getting the new personal trainer system running at $1.8 million, between (among other things) the cost of more thorough bill analyses and the money it'll take to get all the new non-binding advisory votes in the voter's pamphlet each fall. (Not to mention a new pair of Nikes.)

The rest of the legal and political nuance is being sharply debated this fall. The right-leaning nonpartisan Washington Research Council approves of the taxing limits, but fears that the advisory votes "are designed more to intimidate legislators rather than to engage the public." The left-leaning nonpartisan Washington State Budget and Policy Center sympathizes with the public's sensitivity to taxation and likes the attempts at transparency but avers that "I-960 would likely produce the opposite result, actually threatening effective and accountable governance."

Ultimately, though, it comes down to whether you think the Legislature's a fatso who needs some discipline or a healthy adult that can watch its own waistline.
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