by KNUTE BERGER & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & ew political obits are as much anticipated as Tim Eyman's, but rumors of the Mukilteo watch salesman-turned-populist-crusader's demise are, as Mark Twain once said about his own, greatly exaggerated. In fact, these days, Eyman is in his prime. Maybe there's a reason his e-mail Christmas card depicted him as a dancing elf.
His victory prance seems anomalous since the state's Blue-ward shift has marginalized the state conservatives. Democrats control Olympia and they've taken much of the suburbs from the GOP. But Eyman has advantages as a political player: He doesn't need to lead, he can cherry pick his issues, he's not a party animal and sometimes he does things that prove to be popular not only with Reds, but with Blues and Purples, too. That freedom has turned him, despite the vitriol of his opponents, into a political player on a par with Gov. Christine Gregoire and House Speaker Frank Chopp. Arguably, he's the most influential conservative in the state.
Let's take a quick survey of his domain.
Last fall, voters approved the Eyman initiative, I-960, that makes it more difficult for the legislature to raise taxes. It also requires that the public get e-mail alerts when tax legislation is proposed with estimates of how much they will cost. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that the initiative is already working, indeed, it's "rattling" Olympia.
Also late last year, the state Supreme Court knocked down another Eyman initiative, I-747, that put limits on property tax increases. Another failure for Eyman, right? Hardly. With the moral leverage of the I-960 passage, a looming election year for Gregoire, and Democrats looking to expand their conquest of swing districts, the Democrat-led legislature leapt into action in a special session to codify the basics of Eyman's anti-tax initiative into law. Was it a win-win? No, it was an "I win." Eyman dissed the legislature as panderers while also claiming credit for the legislative victory.
Eyman's performance audit initiative, I-900, which passed in 2005, is proving a boon. The idea was to unleash the state auditor, currently Democrat Brian Sonntag, to look into the performance of public entities, ranging from state agencies to local ports, stadium authorities -- whatever -- and suss out problems. Opponents of I-900 complained that it would be used as a political tool by Sonntag (considered by some in Olympia to be a grandstander) and Eyman, who could use the audits to push initiatives. That's turned out to be true. But is it a bad thing?
Performance audits are squishier than straight-forward financial audits because they inevitably get into policy areas -- matters not of math but interpretation, priorities, methodologies, management. Nevertheless, Sonntag's audits are producing information that the public is happy to have. Exhibit A: the audit of the Port of Seattle, a nearly impenetrable public entity that has had the whiff of waste, arrogance and corruption about it for years. The feds have even opened a criminal inquiry into the Port. The bottom line: Tim Eyman passed a law that jump-started the process of getting to the bottom of one of the biggest sinkholes in local governance accountability. There may be some grandstanding going on, but maybe that's what it takes.
Transportation is another area where Eyman's populism might prove popular. Recent audits have prodded and found fault with Sound Transit and the Department of Transportation. There are critics of Sound Transit and the WSDOT on both sides of the political aisle who are ready to believe the worst of these entities.
But the roads-friendly Eyman is also honing new plans to deal with congestion and responding to Gregoire's recent declaration that 520 will be tolled. In Eyman's 2008 initiative, he'll look to funnel funds into car-friendly congestion relief schemes and he seeks to limit how road tolls can be used.
The tolling debate is moving to the front burner and no one is sure where the public stands. I talked recently with a very knowledgeable transportation policy veteran who is part of a group looking at regional tolling. He said that the public is of two minds about tolls, according to polling. The public likes "user fees," but hates "tolls."
While many people would not object to paying a specific toll to pay for a project, policy makers are looking at tolls as part of more widespread revenue generating schemes. Already, the notion has been put forth that if 520 is tolled, I-90 must be tolled also, otherwise more chaos and congestion will ensue. But by that logic, you can argue that all major commuter routes should be tolled. Some policy wonks do.
Eyman says putting tolls on roads to pay for other projects is simply taxation by another name. He'll likely find support for limiting tolls: from people who hate them on general principle to Seattle area commuters who see limiting tolls as reasonable. Then there are social progressives who object to tolling from a social justice perspective because they fall hard on the poor and are often a precursor to privatization. In short, Eyman's initiative may define the early tolling debate before anyone has a chance to propose anything more ambitious, and it will likely define tolls as unpopular taxes, not as acceptable "user fees."
It looks like Tim Eyman's good run will continue. More audits rooting out public abuse, hamstrung lawmakers in Olympia, Democrats eager to codify tax limits. Plus, he's in the driver's seat when it comes the future of transportation funding. No wonder he's feeling like a jolly elf.
A longer version of this column first appeared on Crosscut.com, where Knute Berger's Mossback column regularly appears. You can e-mail him at [email protected]