I-695'S Populism Contradicts Prosperity

VANCOUVER, Wash. - For a moment last night, it looked like Washington's early '90s tax revolt was raging again. Former Gov. Mike Lowry was attacking a citizen's tax-cut initiative and defending government's spending record, facing off against an activist running a low-budget campaign.

Six years ago, Lowry lost the fight when voters approved a state spending limit amid a slow economy, high unemployment, the biggest tax increase in state history, budget cuts and a campaign aimed squarely at him. (Six years later he can joke that he got the worst press of anyone outside prison.)

The 1993 campaign for Initiative 601, led by former state lawmaker Linda Smith, the self-described queen of citizen initiatives, was born here in Clark County. It thrived on people's frustration and anger toward government. Its passage heralded a shift in Washington politics and foreshadowed the dramatic Republican gains in the 1994 election.

But the measure in Lowry's sights this year, Initiative 695 - a proposal to cut the state car-tab tax to a flat $30 a year - faces a very different landscape.

The ingredients for a full-blown tax revolt are gone. The economy is good, unemployment is down, taxes - although mostly business taxes - have been cut.

Mukilteo businessman Tim Eyman, sponsor of I-695, says he tries to use the state's good times to his advantage in pushing the measure.

"If we can't provide meaningful tax relief when there is a billion-dollar tax surplus and a thriving economy, when can we?" Eyman said last night as he debated Lowry here.

In fact, Eyman shies away from claiming he is at the helm of a revolution, though that's largely to counter arguments by local governments that the initiative would devastate their budgets. Where Smith talked of "Linda's Army," Eyman demurs.

"On the Richter scale of tax revolts, ours barely registers," he told a small crowd at Washington State University's Vancouver campus.

This is not to say Eyman doesn't try to stir the populist pot with his campaign rhetoric.

"Now, big business, big labor, politicians, the press, don't like 695. But we, the great unwashed, are the ones who are going to be voting on this, and there are a lot more of us than them."

Revolutions are tough when times are good, said Lance LeLoup, chairman of the Washington State University political science department. It's a time when incumbents are said to be favored, and politicians tend to stay away from Big Ideas.

"I think the environment is really wrong for a tax revolt," LeLoup said. He came from Pullman to moderate what was billed last night as a "discussion" between Lowry and Eyman.

I-695 is "populist in a very true sense. It is something that hits the average citizen," LeLoup said. But if I-695 is successful, he doesn't think it should be read as a measure of the political mood in Washington.

"The average person in the state of Washington really thinks this is an illegitimate tax," he said. "It would be a mistake to read more into this particular initiative."

Smith's 1993 ballot measure was a complicated formula designed to slow the growth of state spending and make it harder to raise taxes.

Eyman's is simple: Cut the fee car owners pay for their license tabs to $30, no matter if it is now thousands of dollars paid by the owner of an RV, hundreds paid for late-model cars, or the inexpensive tabs on a motor scooter. Then, to make sure politicians don't try to make up for the lost money by raising taxes, require a public vote for any future increase in taxes or fees by local or state government.

Lowry pointed out last night that selling I-695 as a populist measure may be tough because the owners of luxury cars will reap large savings while owners of older and smaller cars will see little change.

"The idea of people with a Lincoln Continental and a Mercedes paying a little more for their license tabs, to me, makes sense," he said.

This is one of the more high-profile public appearances the former governor has made since he left office three years ago. He and Eyman also debated last month in Spokane.

Lowry says he isn't part of the official opposition campaign. But he said that, when invited, he gladly will make the case against I-695.

He acknowledged that the cut in the car-tab fees is attractive to voters: "The $30 just sticks out there."

During his 90-minute match with Eyman, though, Lowry said the most damaging part of the initiative is the requirement for votes on all tax and fee increases.

"This is not the republican form of government that has worked so well for 200 years in this country," Lowry said, "that Ben Franklin referred to when he came out of the Constitutional Convention and they asked, `What do we have?' And he said, `We have a republic.' "

This was a familiar role for Lowry. In 1993, he traveled the state for a series of town-hall meetings to explain why taxes were raised and the budget cut. He was tailed by Smith, then a state senator from Hazel Dell, Clark County, who used the forums to launch her campaign for I-601. She went on to serve two terms in Congress and last year lost her bid for the U.S. Senate.

In ad campaigns and speeches for I-601 and I-602, a competing, big-business-backed, tax-rollback measure that failed that fall, Lowry was the poster governor for big spending.

He came into office that year with a $1.5 billion budget deficit that soon got worse with news of Boeing cutbacks. He was even blamed for state spending that took place before he was governor.

Unemployment statewide broke 8 percent during the campaign.

"People felt over-taxed, over-burdened," said Bob Nix, a Chehalis dairy farmer who cut his political teeth working with Smith on I-601.

He said people wanted to send a message to state politicians.

"It was a way to get 'em for what they have done to us over the years."

Nix hopes one legacy of I-601 will survive - voter skepticism toward the arguments against tax-cutting proposals. He said opponents of the 1993 measure used exaggerated predictions of what would happen under the spending limit, similar to what he hears today.

"There's the same fear and the same doom and gloom," Nix said. "They said 601 would be the end of the world as we know it. It wasn't. We wouldn't have this money to fight over if 601 didn't pass."

He concedes some people may not seem so angry now. Jobs, a hot economy and more than $1 billion in tax cuts will take the fight out of people.

"That's true in the cities," Nix said. "But down here in Southwest Washington, people haven't forgotten. They still feel over-taxed."

To make his point, Nix suggests asking any Chehalis business owner.

The timing couldn't have been better to call on Tim Sayler, owner of Service Saw/Workwears, a power equipment and work-clothes store.

Yesterday morning, Sayler got his bill from the state for the license tabs on his 1997 Ford pickup. He bought it secondhand earlier this year.

His secretary told him to guess how much the bill was. He guessed $400.

It was $515.

"If I had any doubts about the way I was going to vote, this sealed the deal," Sayler said. Cutting that bill to $30, he said, "would put a lot of shoes on my kids' feet."

"It's just a pickup. It's not a Cadillac, and I'm not a rich person," he said.

Sayler says the car tax bugs people because, especially if they don't own a business, it's one of the few taxes they pay directly. "This one is just in your face. It gets under your skin."

One of Eyman's most ardent foot soldiers agrees.

Andre Garin, a retired post-office executive from Vancouver, is one of Eyman's "Kamikazes." That's an honor bestowed on the campaign volunteers who collected the most signatures in I-695's record-breaking 500,000-plus signature drive. Garin wore the nickname proudly on his T-shirt last night as he watched Lowry and Eyman.

He figures he got 5,700 people to sign petitions earlier this year, helping to qualify the measure for the Nov. 2 ballot. In recent years, he worked on four or five anti-tax initiatives that focused on cutting property taxes. But all failed miserably, he said. None even got enough signatures to get on the ballot.

Some were too complicated. Some campaigns were disorganized. People at the malls and grocery stores where Garin stood for so many days weren't interested.

Initiative 695 was easy to explain to people on the move.

"People were lining up to sign this thing," he said. "Everybody pays it. It is the same thing year after year."

Garin said some I-695 volunteers have said if the measure is successful in November, Eyman should next go after the property tax.

"I'd tell him not to do it, not to bother," Garin said. "This is the one people want to get rid of."

David Postman's phone message number is 360-943-9882. His e-mail address is dpostman@seattletimes.com