Today we start with a quiz:
Who gave Washington taxpayers $30 license tabs?
a) Tim Eyman and the voters, or
b) Gary Locke and the Legislature.
It happened less than eight years ago, so it shouldn’t be hard to recall that the answer is b. Initiative 695 passed during the 1999 election, getting 56.5 percent of the vote.
But a King County Superior Court judge ruled the initiative unconstitutional, not because of the cheaper tabs but because it included a second subject. In response, the Legislature adopted the $30 tabs and Locke signed the bill in April of 2000.
This isn’t to take anything away from Eyman. Had he not put the initiative before voters, the Legislature wouldn’t have been pressured to reverse the court decision.
What the answer is, instead, is an example of how politicians at times can be pretty good at reading political will. As then-House Co-Speaker Clyde Ballard said about the Legislature’s I-695 vote: “That’s a slam dunk, unless someone wants to retire early.”
This might run counter to a common belief among some voters, especially those who consider themselves populists. Elected officials, this line of thinking states, are elitists who try to bend the will of the voters and ignore it when they can’t. The primary example is the 1995 vote to build a new baseball stadium in Seattle after voters rejected such a move.
It’s true that King County voters narrowly rejected stadium taxes. But many legislators who voted for a new funding package a few weeks later sensed the politics had changed. That’s because the Mariners had gotten hot and were playing for the American League pennant while a special session took up the bill.
Whatever the will of voters statewide was on baseball, not a single legislator who voted yes was defeated because of that action.
All that comes to mind as Gov. Chris Gregoire and Democratic legislative leaders scramble to respond to a hyper-technical ruling of the state Supreme Court last week. By a 5-4 vote – with two of the five majority votes coming from judges filling in for the elected Supreme Court justices – the court tossed out yet another Eyman initiative.
This one, Initiative 747, sought to cap at 1 percent the annual growth in government revenue derived from property taxes.
Without jumping too deeply into the court’s tortured reasoning, I’ll summarize by saying the majority thinks voters were confused as to whether they were reducing the tax cap from 6 percent or from 2 percent. That’s because another Supreme Court decision had changed the underlying law between the time the initiative was filed and when it passed.
The court conclusion came despite the fact that the voters pamphlet, the campaign and the news coverage all were pretty clear. And it took all of two days for Gregoire to conclude that the voters knew exactly what they were doing and the Legislature should simply adopt the 1 percent cap itself.
Gregoire was beat up by partisan R’s and the state’s numerous Gregoire haters – first for not endorsing a 1 percent cap soon enough and then for doing it because it is an election year or because she wanted to copy likely GOP rival Dino Rossi.
But most folks won’t notice who came first. And they won’t care how it was passed. They’ll just enjoy the benefits of an initiative they thought had already been adopted (and that has been enforced despite lower court rulings against it).
Gregoire’s decision shouldn’t come as a surprise. It is an election year, after all. And the cap did pass easily. And the voters just passed another Eyman initiative that makes it more difficult to raise taxes. And most governments are doing okay financially, so there is no immediate fiscal crisis.
All that – plus the aforementioned tendency of politicians to join popular parades rather than stand in front of them – makes the 1 percent cap a near certainty.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657