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Why Eyman’s car-tab initiative passed and other observations from the Nov. 5 election

Standing on the corner at the intersection of Politics and Business/Economics, making some snap judgments, jumping to conclusions and stretching for some sweeping generalizations about the wrecks — err, elections — witnessed last week.

Such as:

If the voters had a grand theme in mind for this election, they did a good job of keeping it to themselves. Some incumbents won, some got turned out, some levy and bond measures passed, others look to be going down to defeat. Off-year (i.e. those in odd-numbered years without a big-ticket race on the ballot like president, governor or senator) aren’t great platforms for judging the mood of the people or to spot major trends and shifts in attitudes, and this wasn’t much different.

But there were some interesting individual stories to analyze, starting with Initiative 976, which given the focus and repetitiveness of the campaign against it (if you happened to be watching a college football webcast on a recent Saturday, you could well have seen the same ad back-to-back, several times over) might well have been officially labeled on the ballot as The Tim Eyman Initiative.

The focus on Eyman might have been a tactical error. If the intention was to draw attention away from the initiative’s core issue — how much it costs to renew your license tabs every year — by focusing on Eyman’s antics and personality, it wound up having the opposite effect.

Eyman has dabbled in lots of issues over the years, but his go-to issue, the one he’s most closely identified with, is the quest to restore the $30 car tab. Voters who are vehicle owners have been fuming ever since renewal notices priced in the hundreds of dollars began showing up in their mailboxes. Making Eyman the issue reinforced the link to those bills.

Some tax increases are easy to hide. Adding a few pennies per gallon to the gas tax, especially in periods of sustained low prices for motor fuel (thanks, fracking!), goes largely unnoticed. So, too, does another 10th of a percentage point added to the sales tax; it may add up to a significant amount over time, but for an individual transaction it barely registers at all with the taxpayer.

But the whopping increases in car-tab fees aren’t so easily obscured. As officials try to figure out what to do about voters again saying those fees are too high, they can blame themselves, not Eyman, not the voting public, for getting themselves into this fix.

The other big story, at least regionally, was Amazon’s foray into the Seattle council races, in an effort to elect members who, if not friendly to the interests of the tech community, will be somewhat less hostile.

The preliminary results suggest a mixed bag, with some candidates on the Amazon slate winning, others trailing. Socialist Kshama Sawant, the prime target of the effort to remake council, may yet survive. If it turns out she lost, that might have happened without Amazon tossing a dime into the races, the citizenry having tired of her.

Tech has long had a complicated history with the political realm, and it’s only going to get messier in 2020. It’s barely on speaking terms with Donald Trump, although the president has been more bluster than action towards them. Some of the leading Democratic presidential candidates (Warren and Sanders), however, have campaigned on their hostility to Big Tech and are likely to translate that animosity into action should they get to the White House. Whatever course it chooses, the tech industry’s traditional operating mode of “if we ignore them maybe they won’t bother us” is no longer viable.

Washington doesn’t have a state income tax, although certain political groups devoutly wish it did and keep trying to find ways around court rulings and voter antipathy to get one.

It didn’t get much attention on this side of the mountains, but Spokane city voters had on their ballots a measure to prohibit the implementation of a local income tax. At the moment, it’s passing with close to 73 percent of the vote. That won’t discourage someone from floating an income tax measure, or a capital gains tax, in the next session of the Legislature, and executives of many cities and counties will not want to cut themselves out of the action should the legal barriers finally tumble. Still, the Spokane vote does suggest just how toxic the idea of an income tax is with much of the electorate.

Closer to home, but also somewhat overlooked, was a vote in Federal Way on allowing marijuana businesses in the city. Unlike the Spokane vote, which enacted a city charter change, the Federal Way vote was merely advisory. The proposal to allow marijuana businesses had, in preliminary counts, 55 percent voting against, indicating that public acceptance of such businesses is hardly universal.

This is hardly an original observation, but it bears repeating. By Dec. 12 — barely a month from now — the British will have wrapped up a national campaign for control of the government, an election with huge consequences, including Brexit and the future of the United Kingdom.

Yes, different country, different size, different system, different culture. But the U.S. elections of 2019 are not an end of anything in themselves but merely a waypoint in the perpetual campaign that constitutes American politics. The campaigns of 2020 started three and a half years ago, and those of 2021, 2022 and beyond will commence shortly. Don’t expect any sort of respite just because they’re still counting ballots from the most recent election and the winners have yet to take office.

It’s not over. It’s never over.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at
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