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November 20, 2007

Critics of I-747 watch Olympia with skepticism

Posted by David Postman at 9:05 AM

With Democrats rushing to reinstate a statewide property tax cap, it's sort of hard to imagine that at one time the Tim Eyman-sponsored measure was thought of as a life-threatening political ploy.

Christian Sinderman, a political consultant who advises some of the Democratic officials now committed to approving a 1 percent tax cap, ran the 2001 campaign that tried to defeat Initiative 747. He said in the heat of the campaign that the tax cap would hurt services provided by local governments:

"We're not saying the ambulance isn't going to show up. We're saying it might take longer, and that could cost lives."

The criticism continued after it became law and was challenged in court. When a Superior Court judge ruled against the initiative, one attorney involved in the case was quoted as saying:

"I-747 was actively harming the parks, schools, libraries, streets, and other public investments required to manage growth successfully."

Gregoire now describes the tax cap in much the same way that Eyman did: It provides certainty to taxpayers. The debate in Olympia now covers the political spectrum from Democrats saying a special session is needed to pass the cap, to Republicans saying it's about time.

But around the state there are people and groups that have not yet come around on I-747. There are those who funded a nearly $900,000 campaign to stop the initiative on the ballot. And when that failed, other groups got involved for a successful legal challenge.

Today they watch with a growing sense of frustration and, in some corners, cynicism as Democrats once again become the vehicle for putting an Eyman idea into law. Chris Dugovich, president of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, the top funders of the 747 opposition campaign, told me yesterday shortly before the special session became official:

"To go back to 1 percent, that's just a knee-jerk reaction. I just hope it's not more about the elections next fall than good government."

Dugovich's union donated more than $200,000 to the campaign. Other Democratic supporters were big givers, too. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, gave $50,000. The state labor council gave $30,000. Boeing and the Washington Education Association each put in $25,000. Microsoft's Bill Gates gave $20,000. Paul Allen's Vulcan, Inc. gave $10,000.

Dugovich is resigned to the fact that the Legislature will impose a tax cap. He said "there's got to be some kind of thoughtful process, though" because 1 percent is still too restrictive. He said he'd like to see a limit indexed to inflation.

He also reminded me that in 2001 Eyman bragged that the 1 percent limit was revenge for a legal challenge to the 2 percent limit voters had previously approved.

The political campaign to stop I-747 fell far short. The measure passed with nearly 58 percent of the vote. It's that overwhelming result that lawmakers are reacting to today. Voters in 37 of 39 counties approved the tax limit. Only King and Whitman voted no.

The Whitman County Commission decided the county would sue to overturn the initiative. Whitman became the lead plaintiff in the suit along with the Seattle-based Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition and Futurewise, an environmental group.

From the Whitman County seat of Colfax, County Commissioner Greg Partch said yesterday that, like Dugovich, he's hoping for something more nuanced than a 1 percent, across-the-board, cap for every taxing district in the state.

"It would be a real shame if they just sat down an codified it. They have an opportunity here to take a look at our property tax system. I don't think a one-size-fits-all works for taxes, One percent in Whitman County is $37,000. How far can you go on $37,000?

"They need to put things in perspective and that's what we're hoping the Legislature will do."

But Partch, a Republican serving as chairman of the commission this year, doesn't sound optimistic.

"The people in the Legislature are running scared. Who in their right mind will take up a tough subject like property tax reform? It's going to take some people with a lot of guts and to stand up and do it. And we'll find out who those people are."

The other plaintiffs have been disappointed in the governor's and Democratic lawmakers' new-found enthusiasm for I-747. Erin Welch, interim executive director at the Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition, said:

"It's surprising that Democrats and the governor now are saying, 'Yes, we need to keep taxes low.' One percent, which is below the rate of inflation, for a state that has a pretty regressive tax system, is harmful to the community."

It seems unlikely that the anti-747 forces will have much influence in the special session. I wonder, though, what happens next year when Eyman will push yet another initiative. Are we to believe the horror stories opponents will tell about what will happen? And what to think when legislators -- who next week month will likely approve a 1 percent limit -- next complain about the difficulties of governing by initiative?

There are those on the left who have long tried to say that Eyman is washed up. But the truth is he continues to be a powerful force in Washington. The Supreme Court can't stop him. And now one of the largest Democratic majorities to ever run the Legislature has signed on to his team.

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