David Goldstein on Tim Eyman, the initiative process, and the need for tax reform

David Goldstein is a former computer programmer whose disgust over Tim Eyman’s continued assaults on state government prompted him to file Initiative 831 in 2003, which would have declared Eyman a horse’s ass. Although the initiative was unsuccessful, Goldstein has remained active in politics as a commentator. He continues to publish HA Seattle and currently writes for The Stranger. The following interview was conducted and published in July of 2003.

Q: Why will Tim Eyman’s newest initiative [which became Initiative 864 in 2004] be so devastating to public services?

A: Well, first of all, it’s big and it’s immediate. His previous property tax effort, I-747, limited growth in local revenues to 1% (less than inflation,) effectively creating a gradual decline in revenues in real dollars over time, even as demand for services grow in accord with growth in population and personal income. And even that decline was delayed in most communities as local government used up their banked levy capacity.

I-864, on the other hand, knocks a large and immediate hole in many local budgets, and is particularly devastating in rural and suburban communities that rely most heavily on local property taxes. It’s most dramatic impact will be on independent taxing districts like fire, parks, and libraries, that rely on regular levies for almost all of their operating budget. Fire districts, for example, spend about 90% of their operating budget on payroll, so I-860 could translate into a laying off one quarter of the department.

Q: Why aren’t Tim Eyman’s proposals good solutions to our regressive tax system?

A: Across the board tax cuts do nothing to correct what is already the most regressive tax system in the nation. If you earn $20,000 a year, you live in the highest taxed state in the union. If you earn $200,000 a year, you live in one of the lowest.

Yet I-864 might save the owner of a $100,000 home as little as $100 on their tax bill, while the owner of a $1 million home could walk away with a $1475 windfall. We need property tax reform that targets relief to those who need it most, not to those who have already reaped thousands of dollars year in savings from past initiatives like I-695.

Q: What is your response to Tim Eyman’s statement that critics have no alternative proposal?

A: Well, he can’t have it both ways. He can’t attack our proposal and then claim we don’t have one. We have proposed a $30,000 Property Tax Homestead Exemption, and are working very hard to get the bill introduced to the Legislature during the current session. Our proposal would shield the first $30,000 of value of a primary residence from all state and local property taxes, resulting in much larger savings for most homeowners, while remaining revenue neutral.

Tim attacks our proposal because he is afraid of it. He knows it addresses the core concerns at the heart of his support, and provides more tax relief to those who need it most. He’s afraid it will put him out of business.

Q: Do you think that Eyman’s 25% property tax initiative is, as he says, the homecoming game of his political career?

A: Actually, I think that it could be his endgame. If he doesn’t qualify this initiative for the ballot, that will make two Eyman-free elections in row, and pretty much marginalize him as a real force in Washington politics. That’s why it’s so important to work during the signature gathering season to educate voters and persuade them not to sign his petition.

Tim has always made a very strong sales pitch to his contributors, asking them to “reinvest” their tax savings into his current initiative efforts. If contributors don’t continue to see a return on their investment, they’ll stop contributing.

Q: Why is budgeting and cutting taxes by initiative not a sensible solution for Washington State?

A: Writing a budget based on how angry voters happen to be on the first Tuesday in November is simply not proving to be a system of government that can provide the kind of economic and political stability that corporations like Boeing are now seeking in other states. These are complicated issues, and a paragraph in the Voters Pamphlet cannot provide enough information for voters to make well-informed decisions.

On a more cynical note, asking voters if they want to cut their own taxes is like asking legislators if they want to raise their own pay. It’s easy politics. It is also cowardly politics. Tax cuts and spending cuts are two sides of the same equation. Yet Tim Eyman only wants to talk about the easy half, and as a result, we’re only having half a debate. If the Legislature didn’t have to address the spending side, writing bi-partisan budgets would be a breeze.

Q: What, in your view, is an appropriate use of the initiative process?

A: Historically, the initiative process was intended as a populist safety-valve to counter a Legislature that was in the pockets of the railroads. It should be saved for controversial issues where the Legislature needs a clear public mandate to act, or for big issues where the interests of the Legislature are clearly at odds with the interests of the people.

But budgets require long term planning, and frequent adjustment, and we just can’t assure efficient services and a stable economy by putting every nickel before voters. Direct democracy would be great… if Washington were the size of a Quaker meetinghouse. But no citizen can be expected to educate himself on every issue, and that is why we elect representatives, whose job it is to be well-informed on our behalf. If voters are so angry about the crappy job they think their representatives are doing, then voters should take a hard look at the crappy job they are doing electing representatives, before they decide to put even more choices on the ballot.

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