“I-695: Road to heaven, or hell?”

"Most seem to agree that Washington's motor vehicle tax needs reform. But some think Initiative 695 is a disastrous way to send a message, while others say it's a message that's long overdue"

  • Tuesday, October 26, 1999 5:00am
  • News

“Depending on your viewpoint, Initiative 695 is either heaven-sent or the work of the devil.As written, the Initiative would eliminate Washington’s Motor Vehicle Excise Tax and replace it with a $30 fee for all registrations.In addition, it would require voter approval for any and all tax and fee increases in the state.But interpretations of how those words are written and what they mean vary greatly. Opponents of I-695 say it will gut vital service and transportation programs in the state and cripple local and state governments’ ability to raise money and function.Proponents maintain that I-695 will do away with an unconscionably high motor vehicle excise tax and finally give voters a way to push tax-happy bureaucrats away from the public money trough.Either way, there is little ambiguity about the issue, said the initiative’s sponsor, Mukilteo businessman Tim Eyman. Poll after poll has reported that the percentage of undecided respondents rarely exceeds 2 percent.“This is one of those issues that is so clear-cut in your mind,” Eyman said. “It’s either the greatest thing there ever was or the Antichrist. “There is no middle ground.”Driving approval for I-695 — which has outnumbered opposition since it surfaced, according to several polls — is a groundswell feeling among supporters that taxes are too high and legislators are unaccountable and out of touch with their constituents, Eyman said.“They’ve forgotten they’re not representing government, they’re representing the people,” Eyman said. Consequently, he said, Washington’s taxes are now the sixth highest in the nation while its economy has thrived and the state’s budget surplus has swelled to more than $1 billion.“It’s time for the average Joe to get a tax cut,” Eyman said. “If not now, when?”Actually, said Whidbey General Hospital Board member Roger Case, he understands voter frustration with the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax and rising taxes in general, but as a remedy, he thinks I-695 is clearly overkill. The board of commissioners at Whidbey General Hospital passed a resolution opposing I-695 more than a month ago.Case said he thinks the initiative is “basically an opportunity for the public to get back at big government’’ for an unfair tax. But in the process, he said, the initiative may return too much power to the people.“It seems that any public entity will have to go to the public on every fee that may need to be raised to manage effectively,” Case said. “In essence, they’re taking management out of the hands of the managers and placing it in the public arena.”As a result, Case said, Whidbey General wouldn’t be able raise fees for labs, fees for medications, or other charges on inpatient care without putting it up for a vote “And that’s rather ridiculous when you stop and think about it,” he said. “I don’t think the public wants to take a hand in management to that degree and if they do, they don’t need their commissioners, whom they elect to oversee the hospital operations. And actually we’re accountable for the financial status of the hospital as it is.”But the fact is, said Oak Harbor resident Peter T. Wolf, when it comes to writing bills and raising taxes, local and state legislators essentially enjoy carte blanche now.“They can write any kind of a bill they want, including a wage increase for themselves, without our vote,” Wolf said. “And that happens all the time. The $30 fee may be a little on the shy side, but you’ve got to go with it (Initiative 695). The main thing now is to get the attention of the state.”Wolf, who lived in California for 40 years, said he has followed the coverage of I-695, both locally and in Seattle papers and broadcast media. And all of it is eerily familiar and all of it hasn’t changed his mind a bit.“It’s a joke. I read almost the exact same things in the paper in California, when Proposition 13 was being talked about in the 70s,” Wolf said.Proposition 13, which froze property taxes, was approved by a clear majority of California voters.“The papers and local and state governments started screaming that it would close down the schools, end free lunch programs and take police off the streets,” Wolf said. “But the public didn’t believe the politicians and they didn’t go for it. And nothing like that happened. Life went on, schools didn’t close and there was no police shortage.”But in fact, to some degree, that will happen in Oak Harbor, said the city’s finance director, Doug Merriman.Merriman said that he understands the public’s feelings about taxation levels, but “I would just hope that the voters educate themselves on all aspects of the initiative. They have to understand that removing those revenues from our budget will impact the levels of service that we can provide.” Passage of I-695 would mean a reduction in police and fire protection and the general operating functions of City Hall, Merriman said.Fifteen percent, or about $1 million, of Oak Harbor’s General Fund budget comes from the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, he added, and it will be nearly impossible to deal with the initiatives reductions without cutting those services.According to Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley, maybe whether Initiative 695 passes or fails is not even really the issue. The need for broad-based tax reform is.“What is relevant is that a significant number of Washington state voters feel we are paying too much for government, and that changes must be made,” Hawley said in a prepared statement. “While I may not agree with the means, I couldn’t agree more with the message.”Why for instance, Hawley asked, does Washington have 270 school districts, so many fire protection districts and more than 200 local police agencies? Couldn’t, he asked, some of these districts be combined to eliminate costly duplication and superfluous brass?“A new millennium is upon us,” Hawley said. “It is time to rethink how our state and county governments operate. Duplication, top-heavy administration and illogical jurisdictional boundaries play havoc on our tax dollars.””

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