October 19, 2005 in City

Cash pumps up gas tax campaign

Richard Roesler Staff writer

OLYMPIA – Encouraged by recent poll results, businesses and unions are pouring 11th-hour cash into the campaign to save a multibillion-dollar gas tax increase from a ballot measure that would torpedo it.

In recent days, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, as well as Seattle investor John Stanton have all written $100,000 checks to the No on 912 campaign. In fact, of the $2.2 million that opponents have raised so far, $1.7 million has rolled in just this month.

“People are seeing that there’s a chance to beat this very bad initiative,” said No on 912 spokesman Mark Funk. The donations, he said, are “a small price to pay for billions of dollars in essential transportation projects.”

The group is now rushing out a last-minute campaign, much of it by mail and on cable TV – to try to show voters exactly what local projects they’d lose if I-912 vetoes the 9.5-cent gas tax increase. The new money would help pay for more $5.5 billion in repairs, safety work and improvements to roads and bridges. Among them: two earthquake-threatened Seattle-area “mega-projects”: the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the 520 Floating Bridge.

The group opposing the gas tax increase says that the infusion of campaign cash won’t sway voters.

“I just think this is a situation where employees of big companies are going to vote yes while a couple of people at the top vote no,” said Initiative 912 spokesman Brett Bader. “I think it’s ordinary taxpaying citizens versus a group of elites.”

Other big contributors opposing I-912 include Boeing ($115,000), the Washington Asphalt Pavement Association ($107,000), Associated General Contractors of Washington ($98,500), Microsoft ($60,000), and the Seattle Mariners ($57,000). Spokane-area large donors include Build East, a political action committee of Inland Northwest contractors ($20,000), as well as Cowles Publishing Co., CPM Development Corp. and the Max J. Kuney Co., each of which gave $10,000. Cowles Publishing owns The Spokesman-Review, among other companies.

Funk said gas tax supporters took heart from two recent polls. One, by KING TV, showed the “yes” vote at just 50 percent. The other, a late-September survey by independent pollster Stuart Elway, showed only 41 percent voting yes. Voting no, according to Elway’s poll: 48 percent.

“What we’ve seen since June, when emotions were at their rawest, is a steady decline in their (I-912’s) support,” said Funk.

If so, why might that be? He and Elway both have several theories:

“Hurricane Katrina: The horror of New Orleans’ failed levees and flooding was burned into TV viewers’ minds, they say, adding a sense of reality to Puget Sound’s longtime worries about a massive earthquake.

“Here’s endless footage, night after night, and its public infrastructure that failed,” said Elway.

“Gas prices: Voters’ alarm – and anger – at gas prices of more than $3 seems to have eased as prices have fallen from their summer highs.

“People have had time to get used to higher gas prices, not that they like it,” Elway said.

“Voter confusion: Initiative 912 is counterintuitive: a vote “yes” means doing away with the gas tax increase. Some voters seem to have it backwards, Elway said.

Bader scoffed. The I-912 folks aim to also show voters around the state how much of the money is going to Seattle.

“I just don’t know if telling them that they’re getting a new intersection is enough to convince them to spend hundreds of dollars more in taxes,” Bader said.

As for voter confusion, he said, it works both ways, canceling out any benefit to a particular side.

“I think that’s just something they (912 critics) have convinced themselves, sitting around their conference table,” he said.

Gas tax supporters have done a good job raising money, Bader said.

“I’ve said from Day 1 that the consultants will be able to convince the business community with some shady polling that if they raise two million bucks, they have a chance to beat this,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I’d rather be us than them.”

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