Eyman’s last stand? Latest car-tab initiative is shaping up to be a referendum on Tim

About 30 minutes into a public forum Thursday night on Initiative 976, Tim Eyman tackled a tough question from a panelist.

Eyman, sponsor of the measure on the Nov. 5 ballot, had railed against car tab fees and other transportation taxes. He did so as he held a sign: “Is this a dishonest tax? Politicians’ answer: Quit yer bitching and pay the damned tax.”

Opponents at the Everett event had their own signs: “No on Tim Eyman’s 976.”

Jerry Cornfield, a reporter for The Daily Herald of Everett, noted that the state had filed a civil lawsuit against Eyman, alleging that he secretly transferred campaign funds between two initiatives in 2012 and pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks from a company that collected signatures for the measures.

“You made dishonesty a theme of your campaign ... Why should voters trust you and your judgment?” Cornfield asked Eyman.

Eyman replied: “It really doesn’t matter whether or not you like me, whether or not you trust me. Trust yourself. Look at the bill you’re paying for your car tabs and ask yourself the question, `Do you think it’s fair to tax a $10,000 vehicle like it’s worth $25,000?’”

As the Nov. 5 general election approaches, Eyman is wrestling with whether I-976 doubles as a referendum on him and the recent turmoil in his 20-year career as the promoter of initiatives. He’s embroiled in a campaign finance lawsuit filed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson and earlier this year was charged with stealing a chair from an office supply store near Olympia.

“Twenty years of political obituaries have been written about me, and none of them have come true yet,” the 53-year-old Eyman said in an interview Friday.

If approved, I-976 would cap annual state and local car-tab fees at $30 unless voters approve a different amount in the future, eliminate the additional fee the state charges based on the weight of a vehicle and bar local governments from tacking on car-tab fees through transportation benefit districts.

The ballot measure also would require Sound Transit to use a valuation schedule for its motor vehicle excise tax based on the Kelley Blue Book. That would scrap the transit agency’s use of an inflated valuation formula for vehicles that pumps more money into Sound Transit’s coffers.

The person who made the debate over I-976 about Eyman is Eyman himself, said Andrew Villeneuve, executive director of the nonprofit group, the Northwest Progressive Institute. Villeneuve referred to a Jan. 4 email in which Eyman told his followers that opponents “don’t have a single meritorious argument” against initiatives like I-976.

Eyman’s email said: “So all we’re gonna hear from them are stories about me. Just me. Only me. Tim’s bankrupt. Tim’s divorced. Tim’s awful. (…) For twenty years, politicians and the press have been trying the vote-no-on-Tim’s-initiative-because-Tim’s-a-bad-guy message. It’s never worked.”

In an Oct. 8 blog post, Villeneuve wrote that Eyman “seems locked in a destructive spiral” and “has troubles that may spell the end of his crusading career.”

Villeneuve noted that Eyman was charged with misdemeanor theft for allegedly stealing a $70 chair from an office supply store in Lacey last February, an incident captured on a surveillance camera. Eyman called it a “total mistake” and said he forgot to pay for the chair after buying several other items.

In July, Eyman reached a settlement over the matter in which he did not admit guilt. The stipulated order of continuance said the theft charge would be dismissed if Eyman doesn’t commit any crimes and does not go to the Office Depot for nine months.

Ferguson filed a campaign finance lawsuit in 2017 against Eyman, the signature-gathering firm Citizen Solutions LLC and one of its owners, William Agazarm, accusing the firm and Agazarm of unlawfully concealing a $308,185 payment to Eyman.

In a Sept. 30 order, Judge James Dixon of Thurston County Superior Court ordered Citizen Solutions and Agazarm to pay more than $1 million for their role in deceiving donors by funneling campaign donations to Eyman for his personal use.

Earlier last month, Dixon sanctioned Eyman and ruled that more than $766,000 given to him between February 2012 and July 2018 are contributions in support of ballot initiatives, not “gifts” from supporters as Eyman had claimed.

“The law requires that all contributions be reported to the public at the time they are made,” Ferguson said in a Sept. 13 written statement. “Mr. Eyman has never reported these contributions. He ignored the law, and shielded his contributors from public view. Translation — this means that Tim Eyman concealed more than $766,000 in campaign contributions, and the state can and will seek additional penalties for every day he fails to report them.”

Eyman, who refers to the attorney general as “fascist Fergie,” has accused Ferguson of trying to destroy him through the lawsuit.

Also, Eyman said, he didn’t make the debate over I-976 about himself.

At Thursday’s public forum in Everett, he said opponents of I-976 “totally focus all of their attacks and all of the ads over me somehow being able to bring down the Skagit Valley Bridge, personally.”

He referred to a TV ad urging people to vote no that shows an image of the 2013 bridge collapse. An engineer says in the ad that he opposes the ballot measure because it would eliminate state funds to fix bridges, overpasses and tunnels that do not meet earthquake safety standards.

Eyman said: “It is just getting so goofy that they make it about me when in fact the only thing that people need to remember is no one put a gun to anybody’s head to sign the petition. I can’t force anybody to vote for it. But in a competition over honesty between me and Sound Transit? Good luck with that. Honesty between me and the Legislature? I think they got me beat. I’m a piker compared to the ones that we got on the other side.”

The Mainstream Republicans of Washington recently announced its opposition to I-976, saying it’s a “misdirected attack on locally-approved and critically-needed funds to address traffic congestion and safety around Washington.”

Mike Vaska, chairman of the group’s board, opposed Eyman’s first cab tabs initiative in 1999 and debated him across the state.

“He was unknown, a genuine populist phenomenon, and quite effective. I never would have thought he would be doing this 20 years later. Usually, populists come and go. He has turned it into a high-paid profession,” said Vaska, who was chairman of a Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce committee that supported the creation of Sound Transit.

Asked to comment, Eyman replied: “Where’s the money? I’m bankrupt. I’m a half million dollars in debt, and I’m being sued by the Attorney General for $2.1 million and a lifetime ban. If I’m in it for the money, I’m really bad at it.”

Bob Henkel, a retiree who lives in Puyallup, collected signatures of thousands of registered voters to get I-976 on the ballot. He said he has known Eyman for several years through circulating petitions for the car-tab ballot measure in 1999 and a number of others since then.

“He’s done a lot of good for the citizens of our state,” Henkel said of Eyman. “He has seen through some of the mistakes that politicians make and has gotten people a chance to vote on things, which is very important.”

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James Drew covers the state Legislature and state government for McClatchy’s Washington papers: The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and The Tri-City Herald.