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Sun., July 22, 2012

Smart Bombs: Big bucks for ‘little guys’

Tim Eyman, longtime spokesman for the people, recently said this about Initiative 1185: “Taxpayers desperately need protection from job-killing, family-budget-busting tax increases.” Actually, he says this about all of his tax initiatives, and if any of them were to end this alleged desperation, he’d need a new line of work.

Anyway, this initiative would get the two-year clock running again on the supermajority requirement for tax increases after the Legislature set aside the previous initiative to help balance the budget.

Responding to this populist bugle call, big businesses have ridden to the rescue by largely financing the initiative and its paid signature gatherers. The Beer Institute, which sounds like my alma mater, is the top contributor at $400,000. Who better to look out for Joe Six Pack? Others writing large checks include ConocoPhillips, BP, Tesoro and Equilon (Shell). And you thought the oil companies and refineries didn’t care about the little guy during an early summer spike at the pump that gave Washington the highest prices in the nation.

Eyman has rarely struggled to find financiers. Michael Dunmire, a former hedge fund manager, and Kemper Freeman, a wealthy Bellevue developer, are his top two contributors over the years.

So the cash pours in, and a populist message pumps out. And if these selfless financiers happen to benefit from the passage of initiatives, well, that just goes to show that we’re all in this together.

Sober judgment. I’m not one to tell people how to invest their money, but Initiative 1185 backers seem to be banking on a creative reading of the Washington state Constitution. In late May, King County Superior Court Judge Bruce Heller went with a plain reading of the document in noting its requirement for a simple majority to pass bills.

Eyman responded by saying Heller’s ruling “throws gasoline on the fire,” which is an apt cliché given the heavy support from oil companies. But should the will of the people trump the constitution? I realize that isn’t a regular topic of discussion at the Beer Institute, but this debate looks like it’s headed for the state Supreme Court fairly soon. Why the risky investment?

The case before Judge Heller was set up when a majority of Senate voters passed a bill to rescind a tax exemption. Then the supermajority requirement was invoked to kill the bill. Here is the relevant passage in the state constitution, Article II, Section 22 (italics mine): “No bill shall become a law unless on its final passage the vote be taken by yeas and nays, the names of the members voting for and against the same be entered on the journal of each house, and a majority of the members elected to each house be recorded thereon as voting in its favor.”

Maybe after several beers the phrase “two-thirds majority” materializes, but I’m just not seeing it.

Endless cycle. In trying to understand how difficult it is to solve budget problems in today’s polarized political climate, I recommend viewing the Tour de France.

Think of Congress as the peloton, or the main body of riders, pumping along steadily to a “no new taxes” mantra. Occasionally, some riders break away and work together to stay clear. The peloton lets them go if they’re not a threat. However, if word gets back that the t-word is being discussed, the peloton furiously tracks down the rebels and spits them out the back end.

A prime example would be when the Gang of Six – made up of three Republican and three Democratic senators – broke away last year to discuss a long-term budget solution that would combine spending cuts and tax increases. Practically every independent authority on the subject agrees that both elements are needed, but raising taxes is radioactive in Congress, because nearly every Republican member has signed a pledge to never, ever raise them – not even to pay for stuff the government has already bought.

Congress let the Gang of Six take the lead and grab a few headlines, but they were reeled in as the election year rolled around. I doubt you’ll hear from them again until this year’s races are over.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.

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