by George Howland Jr. & r & Gov. Christine Gregoire is facing her next leadership test: the state's ongoing tax revolt. Tax cutters call the Democratic governor "Queen Christine," and their latest weapon against her rule is Initiative 912, an effort to rollback the gas tax enacted by the Legislature this year with prodding by Gregoire.
The opponents of I-912 need direction. As the pro-912 campaign begins to gear up, there are serious doubts about the prudence of mounting an opposition effort at all. Even among those who want to fight, there is dissension about how to proceed. Gregoire will be key to the debate, because she is the only one who has clout with the diverse coalition of business, labor, and environmentalist groups who support and helped pass the $8.5 billion transportation package. All that construction will be mostly funded by an incremental gas tax increase of 9.5 cents over the next four years. I-912 would gut the improvements.
The tax revolt flummoxed our previous chief exec, Gary Locke. He and legislative leaders watched helplessly as a watch salesman from a suburb north of Seattle, Tim Eyman, ran up incredible victories with one harebrained, unconstitutional policy after another, hampering government's ability to make necessary public investment. In 1999, Initiative 695 slashed the motor vehicle excise tax (most of us call it "car tabs"). A judge tossed the initiative, but the Legislature cut the tax anyway. In 2000, Initiative 722 voters embraced another unconstitutional measure -- this one limiting the growth of property tax. Eyman hired a better lawyer the next year and wrote a constitutional measure, Initiative 747, which passed easily and now holds property tax increases to 1 percent annually -- hindering local government's ability to deliver needed services. In 2002, voters destroyed local government's ability to maintain roads by passing Initiative 776, which cut counties' vehicle licensing fees. Things quieted down for a couple of years because Eyman had problems identifying easy tax targets and following campaign finance rules. Pundits began speculating that perhaps the state's anti-tax fever had broken.
They were wrong.
This year, despite her election woes, Gregoire showed genuine leadership by pushing hard and successfully to get the $8.5 billion transportation package through the Legislature. Most of the money is raised by a four-year, 9.5-cent, incremental increase in the gas tax, bringing the state revenue per gallon of fuel to 37.5 cents in 2008. The state constitution requires that gas taxes fund only highways and the Washington State Ferries, which are considered highways of the sea -- not mass transit. Other revenue sources in the package include fees on driver licenses, motor homes, vehicle license plates, and the weight of certain vehicles.
The new transportation taxes will pay for 274 projects around the state, including $200 million in projects in Spokane County. The biggest project in Spokane is $152 million for congestion relief on the north corridor of U.S. 395. Statewide the most important investments are in 30 structures that are at risk of collapse, including $2 billion for the Alaskan Way Viaduct highway along Seattle's waterfront and $500 million for the state's Route 520 Evergreen Point Floating Bridge connecting Seattle and Bellevue. Next in importance are 106 safety projects to improve highways with high accident rates. The package also includes passenger rail transportation, environmental projects and freight mobility. These are necessary investments in infrastructure all around the state. "It's community by community because of people's concerns," says state Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. That is why Republicans, Democrats, corporate execs, labor leaders, and environmentalists support them.
A couple of guys on KVI-AM (570), Seattle's main right-wing talk radio station, don't like the gas tax increase. Hosts John Carlson (a former Republican gubernatorial candidate) and Kirby Wilbur decided to try to repeal it using the initiative process. They had 30 days, relatively little money, a Web site, a bunch of volunteers, and a smart GOP political consultant, Brett Bader. But nobody thought they could gather enough signatures in time. Even Eyman didn't. Bader says the campaign collected more than 500,000 signatures in just over a month.
The tax revolt, you see, is alive and well. Gov. Gregoire's legislative director, Marty Brown, sums up the public mood: "We want to have improvements but we don't want to pay for them."
Contrary to popular wisdom, the tax revolt is not confined to the rural areas of Eastern Washington. Tax cut fever rages throughout western Washington, too. Eyman's successful initiatives have all won in Pierce, Snohomish and Clark counties.
If Gregoire cannot figure out how to address the tax revolt, the state cannot move forward with necessary transportation investment. Not only will our economy suffer, but people might get killed when the viaduct collapses. Politically, if Gregoire cannot figure out how to take on the tax cutters, she cannot govern as a Democrat. She will end up either helpless or Republican-lite, as Locke did in 2003 with his no-new-taxes budget.
So what should the governor do? Her first task should be to persuade the businesses that oppose I-912 to fund a campaign against it. Right now there is no official opposition. Instead, a group of opponents that includes Boeing, Microsoft, Pemco, Vulcan, Washington Mutual, Puget Sound Energy, the Association of General Contractors of Washington, the Washington State Labor Council, the Washington Conservation Voters, and others have commissioned a statewide poll to find out what the voters think about I-912 and transportation.
State House transportation committee Chair Ed Murray, D-Seattle, says the business community seems skittish. "It's not clear to me yet to what extent they plan to play. It is possible they won't put a lot of money into it." Steve Leahy, president and CEO of the chamber, admits there is real anxiety. "They don't plan on spending $4 million unless they feel they have some chance of winning," Leahy says of an anti-912 campaign.
Political consultant John Wyble of Moxie Media says that only Gregoire has the clout to push businesses to fund an anti-912 campaign and ensure that the broad coalition of opponents stays together. "It's such a weird group of people who are opposed to this," says Wyble. "The only person who could make them work together is the governor." Don Hopps, the director of the Institute for Washington's Future, a progressive think tank, says Gregoire is terrific at this sort of backroom arm-twisting: "She has the proven capacity when it gets into the infighting."
There is a great deal more debate about whether the governor should confine her role to power broker or if she should also be using her bully pulpit. Some say Gregoire must speak publicly and forcefully. Says Republican Randy Pepple, CEO of Rockey Hill & amp; Knowlton, a public relations firm: "She is going to have to go with the bully pulpit." Pepple says she should throw down the gantlet to her friend John Carlson and ask him, "'John, would you drive on 520 in a storm? Would you want your wife and children to?' If we don't do something we're going to have a tragedy on our hands."
Others think Gregoire should stay behind the scenes. Says political consultant Martin "Jamie" Durkan Jr., "She's a lightning rod. The voters want to kick the governor in the balls."
The Chamber's Leahy says Gregoire has already made up her mind to be out front. "She plans to be very involved and very vocal in a way that Gary Locke never was in eight years." Washington Conservation Voters lobbyist Cliff Traisman says, however, that Gregoire understands that she cannot be the face of the campaign against the initiative. "She is going to be strategic about it," he says.
There is also considerable debate about what kind of campaign to run against I-912. Some believe the current political environment means it should be a grassroots, decentralized, get-out-the-vote effort. Transportation Choices Coalition Executive Director Peter Hurley says, "People need to hear the message not from a TV advertisement but from their local chamber, their PTA, and their circle of friends." Hurley says it was a grassroots approach that helped defeat Eyman's anti-transit Initiative 745 in 2000. He's worried that the I-912 opponents will opt for a TV campaign. "If you do a paid media campaign, it looks like big money. People don't trust big government and big business."
Spokane's Lisa Brown has a slight variation on this theme. She wants local control but doesn't dictate a style of campaign. "It needs to be local business and civic leaders saying why it's important," she says.
Public affairs consultant Bob Gogerty, chairman of Gogerty Stark Marriott, disagrees with Hurley's campaign method but agrees with Brown's localism. "Puget Sound is going to need an air war," Gogerty says. "You have to reach people and let them know that this about more than the gas tax." Gogerty, whose firm directed the strategy for successful tax campaigns on behalf of a multi-billion dollar transit package for Puget Sound and to promote the Seattle Seahawks' Qwest Field, says an anti-912 campaign has to present a positive vision of the future, appealing to voters' hope about the state's potential: "I don't know how you do that without television."
At the same time, Gogerty acknowledges, campaign messages must be locally targeted. "Campaigns designed in Seattle are not speaking to people in Spokane," he says. "You need local campaigns and they should be locally controlled."
The chamber's Leahy says many business people were impressed by a successful campaign to renew a sales tax for transportation in San Diego County: "They did 22 different, geographically targeted mail pieces. They swear by this direct mail rather than a hugely expensive, one-size-fits-all radio and TV campaign. That's likely what we'll attempt here."
Moxie Media's Wyble says Gregoire can't see the fight against I-912 just in terms of winning or losing this particular campaign. Rather, this is an opportunity for the governor to start a conversation with the voters. "This is a long-term battle. We have to decide as a state what services we want to pay for." Wyble thinks Gregoire has to take back ground that has been yielded to reflexive tax cutters, asking the voters: "Are you with right-wing talk radio? Or are you a commonsense person who wants the state to work?"
George Howland Jr. is political editor of Seattle Weekly, where this story first appeared.