Olympia’s ‘Vote NO’ mailer catches attention of regulators — and Tim Eyman

A mailer from the city of Olympia urging a no vote on an effort to cut car tab fees on the Nov. 5 ballot has caught the attention of campaign regulators.

The city of Olympia sent out the mailer in recent days encouraging people to vote no on Initiative 976. If approved, I-976 would cap car tab fees at $30 a year and bar local governments from adding on fees through transportation benefit districts.

Without the $40-a-year vehicle license fee it charges now, Olympia would lose $1.5 million a year from its $3.75 million annual street repair budget, according to the city’s mailer.

“Pavement conditions would suffer and planned projects would not be completed,” it warns. “The safety and performance of our transportation system would be at risk.”

Along with photos of potholes and cracked pavement, the two-sided mailer says “vote no” in five different places. The city spent $7,423 to print and send the mailer, according to Kellie Purce Braseth, a spokeswoman for the city.

State law says public agencies can’t use public facilities to promote or oppose ballot propositions, though they can make an “objective and fair presentation of facts relevant to a ballot proposition,” according to guidance from the state Public Disclosure Commission.

A PDC spokeswoman said officials there were looking into Olympia’s mailer.

“We’re aware of the mailer and we are concerned about some aspects of it, including the ‘vote no’ language, and we are taking a closer look,” said Kim Bradford, noting the state law is a source of many complaints to the commission.

Late Tuesday, the PDC received a formal complaint alleging city officials had violated the law.

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Braseth said Olympia has weighed in on state and local initiatives before and this mailer was no different.

“It’s clear about what we want. That’s a fact,” she said. “We’re giving them facts on the why, we’re being fair and objective on the facts of why that position has been taken.”

I-976 is backed by anti-tax crusader and initiative promoter Tim Eyman. In an email to supporters and media outlets Tuesday afternoon, he called the mailer “blatantly illegal.”

“The pigs at the trough are so desperate to keep the dishonest vehicle tax, they are unconcerned with their blatant illegality,” he wrote.

Olympia isn’t the only jurisdiction worried about the possible effects of I-976. The state Office of Financial Management estimates it would result in a loss of $2.3 billion to local governments and $1.9 billion to the state over six years.

State campaign law does allow elected legislative bodies to “express a collective decision” to support or oppose a ballot proposition. The Olympia City Council unanimously approved a resolution this month opposing I-976, and the Thurston County commissioners passed a similar resolution Tuesday. A resolution in Lacey failed to pass after some council members objected to the idea of taking a stance.

Olympia’s council also approved resolutions supporting a sales tax increase to fund Thurston County 911 communications and a state referendum that allows the use of affirmative action in public education, government employment and contracting. Both measures are also on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.