Tim Eyman’s Signature Strategy
By Will Wilson, Special to Stateline
Tim Eyman is not a member of the Legislature in Washington State, but he's done more to tie that institution in knots than any legislator.
Eyman's ticket to influence is the ballot initiative, a tool he's used almost every year since 1997 to rally voters around putting government in a revenue straightjacket. He's passed measures that froze vehicle registration fees at $30; limited property tax hikes to 1 percent; and required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to raise any taxes.
To Eyman, who sold watches before he became a political activist, ballot initiatives are not solely about passing laws. He sees them as way of injecting accountability into what he thinks is a behind-closed-doors Capitol culture. "Government is the most dangerous when they don't think we're looking," he says. "Don't think for a second that anything you do when it comes to raising taxes is going to be a secret."
Eyman's critics in the Democratic-controlled Legislature view him as both an annoyance and a powerful force whose knack for gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures must be respected. When he's able to channel populist anti-tax anger into victory at the polls, it limits their options for writing budgets and deciding how to pay for government services. Ross Hunter, the chairman of the House Finance Committee and an Eyman nemesis, quips, "If your entire philosophy can fit on the front of a T-shirt — and Tim's can — I don't think that is really how we want to govern the state of Washington."
This year, legislators decided they no longer wanted to have their hands tied by one of Eyman's most high-profile victories. Voters had approved I-960 in 2007. The measure required any tax increase to be approved by a two-thirds legislative supermajority. In February, the Legislature and Governor Chris Gregoire sidestepped that provision by temporarily repealing it — which is something that the state Constitution allows once an initiative has been on the books for two years.
The repeal passed, and Gregoire signed "emergency" tax hikes on cigarettes, beer, soda, bottled water, candy and other products and services, to close the state's $2.8 billion budget gap. "I hope, I expect the people of the state of Washington will understand we're in unprecedented times," Gregoire said as she signed the repeal. "It's time for us to all stick together and work together if we're going to get through the worst recession in the history of the state."
Eyman, who has been known to dress in prisoner get-ups or gorilla costumes to bring media attention to his initiative campaigns, crashed the bill-signing ceremony as an uninvited guest. As Gregoire signed the repeal, Eyman stood behind the governor, holding his nose and offering a thumbs-down for the cameras. The campaign for his next set of initiatives was on. Not only is Eyman collecting signatures for separate initiatives repealing each of the new tax hikes. He's also pushing an initiative that would restore the two-thirds vote requirement for the legislature to raise taxes again. "Elected officials will be a whole lot more responsive," Eyman says, "if they know the voters are willing to fight back."
Defining an emergency
Ironically, it was the overturning of a voter-passed initiative that first got Eyman, who is now 44, into the ballot business. In 1995, King County voters had said no to using taxpayer funds to build a baseball stadium for the Seattle Mariners. State legislators, afraid that the Mariners would leave town, overruled the voters by passing an emergency stadium financing law. Eyman was offended by the idea that building a stadium constituted an "emergency." On a Web site that Eyman describes as his political " resume ," Eyman wrote, "That single, arrogant legislative act was the catalyst that inspired my political activism."
In 1997, Eyman scored his first win at the polls, with an initiative that banned affirmative action in higher education as well as state hiring and contracting. When he encountered difficulty gathering enough signatures to get the measure on the ballot, he enlisted the help of a popular talk-radio host. It was an early lesson in the importance of publicity; in politics, Eyman was not going to win with his ideas alone.
Since then, Eyman has refined nearly every aspect of running an initiative campaign. He uses paid signature-gatherers for most of his initiatives. "Getting 300,000 signatures is just extraordinarily difficult," he complains. Eyman also has gotten more cunning about crafting ballot language that has a better chance of withstanding the legal challenges that inevitably follow. Perhaps most important, Eyman has cultivated a base of funders who agree with his politics and admire his tactics.
Michael Dunmire is one of them. Dunmire, an investment manager, sees backing Eyman's initiatives as a form of public policy philanthropy. "I've made a lot of money in this state," he says, "and I want to give something back." The Eyman initiative he's proudest of passed in 2005. That gave the Washington State auditor the power and funding to conduct performance audits of government agencies.
"I'm a businessman," Dunmire says, "and I know how powerful performance audits can be. What did I get out of that? I got minus $500,000 in my bank account. I don't have any vested interest other than I think it is a good policy." Dunmire says donating to Eyman's campaigns is a good value because he scores more wins for less money than other initiative campaigns do.
A political mercenary?
State Representative Hunter argues that Eyman is little more than a political mercenary, pushing populism as a way to make more than $100,000 in annual income. "Mr. Eyman has his business," Hunter says, "and his business is making money getting signatures."
Eyman is candid about his finances, including the campaign payment scandal that nearly knocked him out of politics in 2002. Then, he was caught paying himself a salary out of campaign funds despite claiming to be a volunteer. Now, he and his partners Jack and Mike Fagan have a compensation fund that they begin soliciting for in the second half of each year. They dedicate all receipts in the first half of the year toward their initiative signature-gathering work. "I mastered the wrong way to be compensated," Eyman admits, "and now I'm doing it the right way."
To some critics, Eyman has come to symbolize an initiative system run amok. The Legislature recently considered a slew of bills aimed at restricting the initiative process. Although none of them became law, many legislators nonetheless remain wary of how much power the initiative can give to someone like Eyman.
State Senator Ken Jacobsen has even sponsored a constitutional amendment to do away with the initiative process. Jacobsen says that since 1994, when a court struck down the state's ban on paid signature-gatherers, the process has "mutated that into a new virus in the political system." Rich individuals and well-funded special interests drive these initiatives, he argues, shackling Olympia with confused or contradictory measures that wouldn't have survived the legislature's iterative drafting process.
Jacobsen says that Eyman has become the most significant political figure in the state, hanging like a shadow over the Capitol. "Legislators think they are so important," he says, "but really, it is Tim Eyman that is important and we're just responding to him. We're just technicians trying to cope with the situation rather than being the people making the decisions."
Eyman disputes that he's quite as powerful as Jacobsen says he is. His initiatives, he says, account for less than one one-hundredth of all legislation in the state. "What is wrong," he says, "with giving the voters the chance to decide one issue?"
The next fight
As much as Eyman talks about the virtues of lowering taxes and giving citizens a voice, he also clearly relishes the bloodsport of politics and making life difficult for politicians. One day recently, Eyman was re-reading a news story about how frustrated legislators had become wrestling with I-960 before they went on to repeal it. He knew some passages by heart. "One of my favorite, favorite news stories!" he stopped to exclaim. "That was just priceless. They were hysterical! They were livid!"
What remains to be seen is whether Eyman or the Legislature will prevail on the fight over the supermajority requirement. Although I-960 originally passed on a close vote in 2007, by a margin of 51 percent to 47 percent, a recent poll showed that 68 percent of voters thought repealing it was "the wrong thing to do." To Eyman, the repeal reflects what he calls the legislature's arrogance when it comes to heeding the will of the people.
Eyman has until July 2 to get enough signatures to put the various measures that constitute his sequel to I-960 on November's ballot. It won't be easy; because the Legislature attached an emergency clause to the new taxes, Eyman will have to collect even more signatures than usual just to give voters a shot at overturning them.
For their part, state leaders are hoping that if voters do get a chance to vote on the tax issue again, they'll understand that states need budgetary flexibility to get through dire economic times. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown believes they will. "People want state government to be able to respond," Brown says. "The supermajority requirement slows down our ability to respond and can hold us hostage to minority perspectives."