Political Hay

The One-Armed Bandit

That’s what Seattle liberals are calling Tim Eyman, tax-cutting initiative king.

By 5.20.04

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SEATTLE -- Some Pierce County residents were surprised as they listen to their answering machines on April 14. On a pre-recorded message, Bill Hanson, executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs (WCPS), told them, "You may soon be approached by anonymous signature gatherers asking you to sign their petitions. Law Enforcement has learned that in the past many individuals who are paid as signature gatherers have been convicted of forgery and other crimes." The tape concluded, "Please think before you ink."

Now it is demonstrably true that signature gatherers have at times been guilty of the crime of forging signatures (some ballot gatherers are paid $1 to $3 per signature they gather, which creates rather perverse incentives) but there has never been proof that said gatherers are identity thieves, as the message slyly hints. Why then would Hanson be so concerned about this? Why worry residents about a danger that is, as yet, only theoretical?

The worry is real, and it concerns large sums of money, but it has little to do with identity theft. It turns out Tim Eyman, the people's tax crusader, bête noir of Seattle liberals and all people of goodwill, is at it again. This time, Eyman is backing a pair of initiatives, the first of which would cut property tax levies by 25 percent. Unless the legislature chose to restructure state funds, I-864 would fall hardest on public services, including police departments, meaning less overtime for Hanson and possibly layoffs for his officers. Although he initially denied it, Hanson later admitted that Eyman's proposal was the driving force behind his phone campaign.

Unsurprisingly, the feisty Eyman cried foul. He called Hanson's message "sickening" and denounced the WCPS as a bunch of "parasites." He filed a complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission, arguing that the union should not be allowed to act in such a manner unless they register it as a donation to the anti-initiative campaign. The union grudgingly reported an expenditure of a little over $12,000 the day after his complaint, and the PDC dropped the matter.

(It's worth noting that Eyman was so quick to file the complaint likely only because he's been stung by the PDC in the past. Two years ago, Eyman dipped into his campaign's funds to the tune of $50,000. This wouldn't have been illegal except that he claimed he wasn't drawing a salary. The regulatory body took it all in the form of a fine. Since, Eyman has drawn monies out of his organization -- popularly known as Permanent Offense -- and admitted it.)

But it didn't stay dropped. Days later the phone messages again began to fly. This time citizens with 206 and 425 area codes received warnings that many signature gatherers have been convicted of "forgery, signature fraud, and other crimes." Gatherers "may say anything to gain your signature" the message warned, with the implication that they might then proceed to do any old thing with our Jane Hancocks.

SO FAR AS I KNOW, this is unprecedented in the history of Washington politics. Here you have a tax-supported public employee union not coming out against an initiative once it's on the ballot or trying to convince people not to sign a petition on its merits, or even roughing people up (à la some aggressive union thugs in the '30s and '40s), but trying to undermine the democratic process itself.

Local progressives have long disdained the voters' tendency to pass whopping tax cuts every few years (usually in response, it should be noted, to tax hikes by the legislature), but this new anti-I-864 campaign has taken the usual kvetching up a notch. Given Eyman's ability to pass initiatives in the past, and the dismal state of the local economy, polite opinion would like nothing less than to shut him down.

Of course -- Eyman being Eyman -- he has an answer for the criticisms that I-864 would bankrupt the state, but it is a doozy. His second initiative, I-892, is what some wag might call the Slot Machine Republican response to fiscal shortages. He wants to remove the one-handed bandit monopoly from Indian casinos and allow the government to install gambling machines in bowling alleys and restaurants up and down the state. The tribes have all lined up against it and tremendous sport has been made of the fact that American subsidiaries of Canadian gaming companies have pitched in. Eyman has fired back that he's acted within the bounds of the law and that, anyway, the slot machine revenues would help fund public schools, so it's "for the children." When it comes to electoral controversy, you might say that Eyman has hit the jackpot.

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About the Author

Heather Roscoe writes from Washington state.