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March 4, 2013 at 6:00 AM

On Tim Eyman: reply to a reader

A reader sends the following criticism of my column on Tim Eyman’s Initiative 517:

I read with shock and disbelief that The Seattle Times supported Mr. Eyman’s latest initiative, I-517: “I-517 helps community activists take the initiative,” Opinion, Bruce Ramsey, The Seattle Times, Feb. 27, 2013.

What kind of “community activist” supports Tim Eyman?

Who paid for I-1185? Answer: British Petroleum, Conoco Phillips, Phillips 66, And The Beer Institute.

A “community activist” is someone who wants to improve the quality of life for the community. Mr. Eyman’s I-1053 was opposed by over 150 organizations, unions, and non-profits. Each of these is a real community activist. A King County Superior Court Judge found I-1053 unconstitutional, and now the State Supreme Court has also found it unconstitutional.

Is Tim Eyman the King of the State of Washington and is Washington State a monarchy? What if this “king” decided to eliminate all funding for public education and public transit by lowering taxes 30%? Could anyone stop him and his “armies”, the petition gatherers? Can’t you and your staff see the damage that this “king” is doing to the State of Washington?

Corrupt leaders generally don’t like Freedom of Speech. What if you criticized “the king” and he retaliated by passing an initiative to stop publishing the Seattle Times? Would it be okay if the Seattle Times lost 400 employees as the state’s population went up by an average of 70,000 a year? Who would defend you?

Let’s take it one at a time. First, my correspondent refers to a signed column, which is my opinion, not The Times’ opinion. This reply is also my opinion, not the company’s.

The column was about a provision of Initiative 517: that if a local initiative has enough valid signatures, neither the local government or anyone else can have a court remove it from the ballot. The opponents can sue after it passes. I argued that this helps community activists, and I led the column with an activist from the left.

My correspondent doesn’t contest this. Instead, he attacks Tim Eyman as not being a community activist because a different initiative, 1185 (to require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature or a vote of the people in order to raise taxes) was funded by beer and oil interests.

So it was. According to the state Public Disclosure Commission, the Beer Institute of Washington, D.C., put up $400,000, and British Petroleum and Conoco Phillips each put up $100,000. Also the Association of Washington Business—essentially the statewide chamber of commerce—put up $113,000. This was the money used to pay signature gatherers to get I-1185 on the ballot. There was no paid campaign for 1185.

I think that 64 percent of the voters approved it is more important than the source of the money to pay the signature gatherers. We can disagree about that.

Still the money is important.  All political money is self-interested–economically, ideologically or in some way. And if you complain about the money behind 1185, you might mention some other such money, such as the money behind November’s gay-marriage measure, Referendum 74. More than $10 million was raised for that. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and wife Mackenzie made the news for their contribution of $2.5 million. According to reports filed at the Public Disclosure Commission, donors also include ex-Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and wife Melinda Gates, $600,000; Jon Stryker, a Kalamazoo, Mich., architect, $375,000; New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, $200,000; Actor Brad Pitt, $100,000, and more.

For the marijuana measure, Initiative 502, state figures show that retired insurance CEO Peter Lewis of Mayfield Village, Ohio, contributed more than $2 million. Edmonds travel entrepreneur Rick Steves and his companies put in $450,000, and Thomas Cody Swift of the RiverStyx Foundation, Kirkland, put in $445,000. Drug Policy Action Inc, of New York, N.Y., put in $1.45 million.

Does all that bother you?

My progressive critics get all in a knot about money backing measures they don’t like, but are too often silent about money backing things they favor. But a rule has to apply across the board. If Brad Pitt gets to donate to initiatives in the state of Washington, the Beer Institute should be allowed the same privilege.

Big donations generally don’t bother me. I’m glad they have to be disclosed, because it’s useful to know who’s behind a proposal. I am also glad to have had the chance to vote on same-sex marriage and marijuana, and the year before, on the privatization of liquor. I like the initiative process. Sometimes I think the people are fooled, but on balance I think they have common sense. The people are better off having the initiative and referendum, including paid signature gatherers and private donors, than not having them. The people’s power is a check on the power of lobbies and legislators.

My correspondent asks what would happen if Eyman “decided to eliminate all funding for public education and public transit…” I can tell you what would happen. There would be an outcry in the media. He would have trouble raising money to fund the signature drive. There would be a media campaign for people not to sign the petitions. If a miracle happened and he got the signatures, there would be a media campaign to vote no. At the ballot box the initiative would fail. If a double miracle happened and a measure ending state funds for public education passed, the school districts would sue, arguing that they were protected in the state constitution. They would win, and the initiative would be thrown out.

It would be the same with an initiative to shut down The Seattle Times. Every news organ in Washington would denounce such an initiative. It would fail. If a miracle happened and it passed, The Times would sue, claiming it was a bill of attainder and violated the freedom of the press, and the court would throw it out.

In reality, Eyman has a strong sense of what is politically and legally possible. He would not do any of these things.

Finally you ask whether it would be O.K. if The Times lost 400 employees because of budget problems. Something like that has already happened. Like many newspapers, The Times endured big cutbacks in the past decade and a half. It has forced us to make hard decisions. Our experience is one reason why as an editorial voice we have been adamant that the state has needed to “reset” itself in the face of slow-growing revenues.

Comments | Topics: tim eyman


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