Opinion

Anti-tax agitator Tim Eyman has a good case this time

From the Editorial Board

Tim Eyman looks on from the gallery during a King County hearing on the anti-tax measure he was trying to salvage last year. Eyman has moved on to new battles, including collecting signatures for a $30 car-tabs initiative and a court fight over ballot language for three new state taxes.
Tim Eyman looks on from the gallery during a King County hearing on the anti-tax measure he was trying to salvage last year. Eyman has moved on to new battles, including collecting signatures for a $30 car-tabs initiative and a court fight over ballot language for three new state taxes. AP file photo, 2016

Rarely will you read a defense of Tim Eyman, Washington’s incorrigible initiative monger and anti-tax bomb thrower, in the editorial columns of The News Tribune.

Rather than pressing for reform proactively, such as by running for public office, Eyman has long made his living off a reactionary brand of scorched-earth populism. He threatens to disrupt vital government services by whipping up taxpayer revolt against every revenue increase under the sun. And he wastes court resources with new twists on the same old unconstitutional ideas.

But even a broken clock is right twice a day, as the saying goes.

Such was the case with the former watch salesman this week. Eyman went to court to force the state to be more forthcoming about three new taxes approved by the 2017 Legislature. He lost on a technicality — he missed a deadline when filing his paperwork — but quickly appealed to the Supreme Court.

We hope he gets another shot.

At issue are the public advisory votes retroactively placed on the ballot whenever lawmakers eliminate a tax break, approve a new tax or extend an old one. Eyman included these advisories in his 2007 initiative requiring a two-thirds majority for tax increases; they’re the only part that survived court challenges.

Advisory votes are non-binding on the Legislature, which has invariably ignored the results. They deceive voters into thinking they’re repealing taxes. They are a pointless distraction for voters suffering ballot fatigue.

But they are the law, and as long they’re on the books, they should be done right.

The next advisory exercise is headed for the November ballot. Voters will be asked if they want to repeal (of course they do) or maintain (fat chance) a trio of new taxes state lawmakers approved as part of their $43.7 billion, two-year budget agreement on the last day of June.

The taxes will be imposed on internet sales, bottled water and extracted fuels — three distinct taxes affecting three different groups of taxpayers. And yet the short ballot description the state Attorney General’s office drafted is oddly nondescript; it lumps all three together as “certain retail sales and use tax exemptions.”

Why not explicitly say what each tax would do and who’s on the hook to pay it, as every previous advisory vote since 2012 has done? Why not tease out the information into three separate votes, since some people might support one tax but not the others?

The law says that when government raises revenue using more than one source, “each tax being increased shall be subject to a separate measure for an advisory vote of the people.” Eyman validly argues that state officials should go out of their way to follow the law and shouldn’t be overly clever in interpreting it.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese said Monday this was “a very interesting case,” but said he had to rule against Eyman based on his late court filing. (Lanese also noted the “incredibly short” time the public has to challenge ballot language. The Legislature would be wise to look at that.)

For Eyman, we suspect, this fight is largely a publicity stunt, calculated to help drum up signatures for his misbegotten $30 car-tab initiative. The self-promoter who once grabbed attention by wearing a gorilla costume to a media event has traded it in for a lawyer’s suit; he laid on his best Ben Matlock charm while representing himself in court Monday.

But he picked a good fight for a change, and it comes at the right time.

Washington lawmakers did the public a disservice this summer with an eleventh-hour tax package hatched in the shadows. The state shouldn’t compound the mistake by leaving voters in the dark this fall.

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