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Shawn Vestal: Trolley-bashing Washington Policy Center has funny way of showing neutrality

Have you been wondering what position the Washington Policy Center is taking on the Spokane transit ballot measure?

They don’t have one!

This might seem odd to you. Hard to square. After all, the Washington Policy Center – peddlers of right-to-work laws and opposers of all taxation – has inserted itself prominently in our city’s election over whether to expand funding for transit programs. The center has made presentations, issued news releases and blogged regularly, and produced a piece of “independent research” questioning the cost and efficiency of a key element of the transit plan: an electric trolley through the center of the city.

The center is nakedly acting in opposition to Proposition 1. And it is doing so from a deep and long-standing opposition to public transit projects statewide – something one of its bloggers once called a “war on cars.” Among its most prominent supporters is Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman Jr., whose opposition to transit projects on the West Side is legendary.

Yet it’s asking us not to believe our eyes.

In a blog post last week, Chris Cargill, WPC’s man in Spokane, asserted: “Washington Policy Center has not taken a position on Proposition 1. To help inform the public we have published an analysis of one of its projects called Overview of Spokane’s Electric Trolley proposal.

Cargill reiterated this point in an email to me this week: “Per our standard practice, we are not taking a position on the overall ballot measure. We also did not produce a Citizens Guide on STA’s Prop. 1 as we have done with other ballot proposals since we have only done research on the trolley issue.”

I wanted to get Cargill on the phone and ask him how he could sincerely make this assertion. He told me he could tell I was writing a “hit piece” and wouldn’t answer questions. He then sent a third iteration of the above statement.

It is very important for the WPC to claim it is nonpartisan, independent, research-oriented – and not the tool for political action and advocacy that it so obviously is.

Why? There is nothing wrong, after all, with political action and advocacy. Why does the WPC, which is working so diligently against Proposition 1, so diligently pretend that it’s not?

Maybe it’s this: Defining itself as “not political” allows the WPC to pay no taxes and to keep donors secret. The center – which boasted in a recent fundraising pitch that “our position prevailed on five out of six ballot measures during the last election” – has defined itself for tax purposes as a 501(c)3 corporation. That classification is set aside for religious, charitable and educational groups, and it prohibits direct political advocacy while allowing efforts to inform or educate.

This means that if you’re wondering who gave money to support the transit proposal – to a group known as the Coalition for Economic Vitality – you can go online and check. You can see the group has raised more than $100,000 and spent about half of it, as of its latest filing. You can see who gave them money, and where those people or organizations come from.

You cannot do this with the Washington Policy Center.

Because it has no position.

Cargill began “informing the public” about the STA measure before it was even on the ballot, writing an op-ed piece in this newspaper last fall referring to the electric trolley as an “electric folly.” He’s very pleased with this pun, reusing it at every opportunity. It’s an interesting choice of words for someone who insists he has no position on the matter.

The trolley is a key piece of the 10-year Spokane Transit Authority proposal to raise the sales tax by 0.3 percent to fund major improvements systemwide. (For a more detailed overview, go to stories/2015/apr/06/ sta-has-a-lot-riding-on- proposition-1). It is grotesquely disingenuous to suggest that repeatedly bashing the trolley is not taking a position on the entire proposition.

Last year, the moment the agency’s board decided to put this measure on the ballot, Cargill blogged about it – deploying “electric folly” again. In March, the WPC issued a news release: “New research released by Washington Policy Center – an independent research organization with offices in Spokane – shows the city would be better served by a less-expensive Bus Rapid Transit system already in place in other Northwest cities.”

That policy brief opens with seven “key findings.” The findings conclude: “Enhanced bus or Bus Rapid Transit systems would better fit Spokane’s needs, at a lower cost to taxpayers.”

The report delves into STA finances, tax rates, ridership and other issues, and it makes a case against the trolley on the grounds of affordability, need and efficiency. Is it a persuasive case? Not to me. But it’s not dumb or empty. What it is, though, is a piece of advocacy, with the obvious goal of influencing voters.

Cargill claims his organization has taken no position. His own words belie him.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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