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June 20, 2006

Even ruled unconstitutional, Eyman initiative has power

Posted by David Postman at 8:57 AM

Gov. Christine Gregoire's announcement that she'll back property tax relief if Tim Eyman's Initiative 747 is ruled unconstitutional is yet further proof of something smart Eyman once said: His initiatives can carry political power even if they are stripped of any legal power.

And I'm sure he takes comfort in that, given how many court fights he has lost.

The best example of this Eyman rule is Initiative 695. The 1999 initiative that eliminated the state car registration tax was opposed by Democrats as a devastating blow to transportation funding. But the day the initiative was ruled unconstitutional by a King County Superior Court judge, Democrats were in a tizzy as they rushed to protect the tax-cutting measure. Then-Gov. Gary Locke demanded "the Legislature act in special session to remove any doubt in voters' minds that the cheap, flat-tax car tabs are here to stay."

Eyman had some heartburn with seeing Locke become the champion of the lower car taxes, but in the end he said he didn't care how it happened.

"There are a thousand different ways to skin this cat, whether it's the court approving of 695, or the legislators getting off their duffs, or us running another initiative in the future."

Opponents of I-747 said the 1 percent cap on property tax increases was a threat to "basic local services," including fire protection and hospitals. They argued that taxes were not overly burdensome and "lower than many similar states."

Gregoire's comment Monday that "We need to make sure that people can afford to pay their property taxes" is a mild version of Eyman's voter's pamphlet statement that the initiative was needed "so working class families and senior citizens, and not just rich people, can afford to buy and own homes."

There are no details on what Gregoire or Democratic lawmakers will offer for property tax relief. But one wonders what the firefighters, nurses, librarians and others who fought against I-747 think about their friends in the Democratic party joining Eyman's cause. I'll ask them and see.

UPDATE: The Washington State Council of Firefighters, the most visible piece of the anti-I 747 campaign, has a note of caution for politicians rushing to replace unconstitutional property tax limits. The union's legislative liaison, Bud Sizemore told me:

"Our organization would hope that the Legislature does not just react to 747 and slap another 1 percent on there when local governments have already been hurting over the last several years trying to deal within that 1 percent."

And union president Kelly Fox said he hopes that the governor will include firefighters and other 747 opponents in any discussions about new property tax limits.

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