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Shawn Vestal: Tim Eyman is still at it

In this Jan. 21, 2016 file photo, Tim Eyman speaks with reporters after hearing that a judge struck down his latest tax-limiting measure in Olympia, Wash. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

He never gives up.

Take that for good or for ill, but among the many things you might say about Tim Eyman – including the attorney general’s allegation that he built an initiative empire whose self-dealing is so corrupt that he should be banned from managing any political committee again – you have to give him that.

Whether you consider him shameless or admirable, he never, never, never gives up.

Eyman’s a political Weeble: He comes back from losses with the insistent bounce of someone celebrating a win. Big smile, hand out. He likes to quote Winston Churchill: “Success is defined as moving from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

So he’s out there gathering signatures for a $30 car tab initiative. Again. Cheap car tabs were Eyman’s first success as an initiative peddler 20 years ago, and he just can’t quit them. This time, he’s coupling his pitch for initiative donors with a second appeal, asking supporters to help fund his legal defense in an epic battle with the attorney general’s office, which argues, persuasively, that Eyman’s initiative empire has operated as a kickback scheme to enrich him.

Eyman was in Spokane this week to rally supporters for his latest run at $30 tabs. The way he sees it, this arbitrary and appealingly low price tag is a symbol in the David vs. Goliath battle between put-upon citizens and gimme-gimme government.

“It really is a metaphor for how the government doesn’t listen to us,” he said. “Most people feel pretty helpless to do anything about it.”

Voters approved $30 tabs in two elections, but they haven’t stuck, losing challenges in court and seeming to lose steam with voters. Eyman’s previous two efforts to gather signatures for a car-tab rerun have fallen far short.

Meanwhile, state and local governments have added fees back onto the car tabs – like barnacles, Eyman said. He wants to scrape off the barnacles and give the voters what they want.

What happens when the barnacles are paying for things the voters want?

In Spokane, a return to $30 tabs would eliminate the Transportation Benefit District fee of $20, which the City Council approved in 2010. These fees provide about $2 million a year for repairing and maintaining residential streets, almost half the city’s overall budget for such work, said Gavin Cooley, the city’s chief financial officer. That supplements the larger street bond projects going on every year, all over town.

If Initiative 976 were to pass, it would also eliminate the vehicle weight fee, averaging around $25, that goes to the state; Cooley said that could also curtail funding for road projects in Spokane that often attract matching grants from the state.

In other words, here in Spokane, it’s a literal choice between cheaper tabs and repairing more streets, fixing more sidewalks, filling more potholes. At a time when the city is making substantial progress against a historic and long-ignored backlog of needed street work, it would mark a multimillion-dollar retreat.

Voters may want to make that choice; what they shouldn’t do is think that there’s no consequence to those alluring $30 tabs.

Eyman’s latest push is spurred in large part by fury over a 2016 voter-approved fee increase to fund Sound Transit projects on the West Side – fees that critics say were undersold beforehand. He sees this as asking West Side voters whether they’ve changed their minds now that the details have emerged.

Thirty-dollar tabs operate more as symbol – as Rorschach test – than thoughtful policy. For Eyman, they symbolize a rebellion against government’s insatiable appetite for taxation. What I see is a simplistic appeal to the selfish that is at the core of all politics centered around tax cutting. It makes no argument but this: I should pay less, without thinking about what I pay for.

This detached view of the link between taxes and services is knee-jerk, not thoughtful, and it wrongly presumes that everything the government does exists outside the realm of what we pay. Thirty-dollar tabs appeal to our sense that we deserve steak for the price of hamburger.

Eyman and I talked about our very different views of his initiative. He says voters pay so many different governments – from the school district to the city to the county to the state to the feds – and have so little influence on them, that trying to reclaim control of this single fee is their rare chance to speak up.

“It’s not like voters are being given the opportunity to cut their taxes 20 times a year, or thirty times a year or 40 times a year,” he said. “It’s once in several years that you have a chance to do anything about your taxes going up.”

He says he’s willing to gamble a half-million dollars of his own money in this campaign, putting up his retirement savings to hire signature gatherers in the hope he’ll be able to recoup it. Having seen the voters say yes to the $30 tabs in years past and then have their will undermined, he said, is “like watching my kid go to school and get mugged.”

He’s also raising the specter that this could be Eyman’s Last Stand. If the state is successful in its suit against him, he may lose his right to run political committees. He characterizes this as being “banned from the political process for my entire life.” In truth what it would ban him from is managing political committees, as a consequence of years and years of violations that investigators describe as persistent and intentional.

Eyman’s fundraising for his legal defense fund is every bit as big a priority for his road show as the $30 tabs. He’s appearing with Glen Morgan, the conservative campaign finance gadfly whose many complaints to the state Public Disclosure Commission spurred revelations of sloppy, amateurish campaign reporting violations by the Spokane County Democratic Party.

In letters to supporters, Eyman portrays himself as a victim of a political vendetta, at the mercy of a liberal government that is attacking him and his family. He says if he were running initiatives to raise the minimum wage, no one at the attorney general’s office would bat an eye. He is, he says – sounding presidential in the current sense of the word – the victim of “a witch hunt.”

This narrative omits what it is Eyman is accused of doing. Time and time again, he has run afoul of the laws governing how money is raised and spent and publicly reported under campaign laws. Time and time again, he has violated the laws in a way that seem intended to obscure the truth and put more money into his own pocket. He says, “If I’m in it for the money, I’m not very good at it,” which is a good line, but not a substantial defense.

The state, meanwhile, has mounted a substantial offense, arguing that Eyman has repeatedly flouted the rules governing initiative financing, improperly shuffling money between accounts and pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars he didn’t report to the state.

Eyman’s trial is set for November. By then we’ll know whether his army of paid signature gatherers has qualified I-976 for the ballot, and what Washington voters have said about it. We’ll know whether Spokane will cut back on street repairs.

There’s a lot we’ll know then that we don’t know now. But take one thing to the bank: Eyman won’t quit.

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