Politics & Government

Eyman, Democrats ... tax fight makes strange bedfellows

As conservative activist Tim Eyman and his adversaries on the political left clock in for their annual donnybrook, an intriguing facet of their relationship stands out: This year, perhaps more than ever, these sworn enemies need each other.

Reprising his role as the Legislature’s chief antagonist, Eyman hit the streets last week with his 2010 effort, the newly christened Initiative 1053. If it wins, I-1053 would reinforce a difficult two-thirds vote threshold for the Legislature to raise taxes.

That’s where the symbiotic relationship comes in.

For Eyman’s campaign to really catch fire, he needs the Democratic majority to follow through with its plans to amend the existing two-thirds vote hurdle, most recently enacted under 2007’s I-960.

And in their quest to persuade lawmakers to jack up taxes during a recession-warped election cycle, the Democratic Party’s base can use Eyman’s next campaign to show that this is the Legislature’s one good opportunity to bankroll their priorities.

In a nearly statesmanlike tone, Eyman claims he’d be perfectly happy to see I-1053 rendered irrelevant – if only the Democrats would “do the right thing” and resist the pressure to raise taxes.

“Our secret weapon is their arrogance,” Eyman said. “The more arrogant they are, the more taxes they raise, the more they’re going to create enthusiasm for this initiative.”

Of course, the Legislature’s Democratic majority isn’t really willing to acknowledge the Eyman factor. Their standard reply is something along the lines of “Tim who?”

“We’re just going to do what we think is the right thing to do,” said House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. “He may do whatever he does in order to earn a living, I guess.”

Nevertheless, just as the Democrats’ actions will fuel his campaign, Eyman’s latest initiative has to factor into the Legislature’s plans.

Economic jitters are still high, and the usual anti-incumbent tide of a post-presidential year could reach down to local elections.

That means it’s not outlandish to think that Eyman could win with I-1053, and legislative Democrats could lose a few of the marginal seats they picked up in the waning years of the Bush administration.

Under that scenario, raising taxes could be virtually impossible in 2011, when the Legislature will have to combat another budget deficit already being pegged at several billion dollars.

This is where Eyman’s opponents could be thanking him: The threat of another two-thirds vote hurdle in 2011 is an obvious answer to any skittish legislators who want to punt on a big tax vote.

“The kind of cuts we’re talking about implementing this year would be devastating,” said Sandeep Kaushik, spokesman for the Rebuilding Our Economic Future Coalition. “To try to put off dealing with those problems for another year would potentially make it harder to take action.”

And since supporters of more revenue must expect an initiative campaign challenging the tax package, it’s probably better to fight that battle this year. In 2011, it’ll be a much quieter election year, which usually translates to a smaller, more conservative voter pool, Kaushik notes.

The first thing that has to happen, of course, is the long-rumored suspension or amendment of I-960’s existing two-thirds vote requirement. Look for the House to potentially take up that task next week, likely tied to a bill that closes some tax loopholes.

Once the Legislature changes I-960 to make tax hikes easier, Eyman’s latest campaign will really kick into gear. But House Finance Committee Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, isn’t convinced that simply altering I-960 will give Eyman a free pass to victory in November.

With a targeted approach that respects the broad message of the voters’ mandate, Hunter said, the Legislature could have a chance at depriving Eyman of some anti-establishment fuel.

“I’d like to do some long-term surgery on this bill to make the thing function in a reasonable way,” Hunter said. “And if I can convince the voters that I’ve done a good job of that, then, you know, maybe we won’t have Eyman’s latest debacle on the ballot, or maybe it won’t pass.”