This week, I spoke with Tim Eyman on Initiative 1125. Eyman says it provides straightforward protections for toll revenues. Opponents say it blows a hole in transportation funding and is just bad policy. And the Office of Financial Management’s projections say it could jeopardize funding for some big-ticket projects.
Usually, Q&A conversations are limited to 15 minutes. This one went a bit longer — so when I talk to the opposition next week, I’ll give them an extra five minutes, too.
Q: First, what does this initiative do from your perspective?
Eyman: Biggest thing that the initiative does is that it follows up on last year’s initiative 1053. We did that last year, it was the fourth time the voters voted for the policy. It got 64 percent approval. That was about saying, if they’re going to raise taxes, it takes a two-thirds vote. If they’re going to increase a fee, they’ve got to take a legislative vote. It was the fourth time the voters had voted for these policies. It was just a long-standing debate and the voters said this is what we want unambiguously. During session, the transportation budget writers decided not to comply – they re-delegated the authority to set tolls right back to the Transportation Commission.
In theory, initiatives are good for two years. After two years, they can start monkeying with it. This is the first time I’d ever seen them sidestep a provision in an initiative within the two-year period. What 1125 does is the idea that it needs to be the Legislature that sets the tolls it can’t be the unelected bureaucrats at the state agency.
We’re talking about billions that they’re imposing with tolls, thousands of dollars per year from struggling families. If there’s going to be that much additional taxation, there’s got to be representation involved. At least with the legislative process, you have a voice — you can come down, testify, talk with elected representatives, there’s the legislative process, the back and forth. If you don’t like the decision, you at least have the opportunity to vote your elected rep out of office… It’s a way to — and I’m going to digress for a second, but that’s my way — is that I grew up with Initiative 695 where we were pushing really hard for voter approval for every tax and fee increase. The philosophy was: We don’t trust you guys. Time and again throughout that debate they said, No, these kind of decisions need to be made by our elected representatives and if you don’t like them, you can vote them out of office.
I feel like we’ve come all the way to where they were at and now they’re moving the ball and saying no, for tolls we need to let unelected bureaucrats make the decisions.
Q: You mentioned that it’s important for people to be able to provide feedback, but they can already do that at Transportation Commission meetings.
Eyman: Our initiative doesn’t eliminate the Transportation Commission. You’re still going to have it, you’re still going to have citizens testify and they can make recommendations saying we recommend this toll. There was a Senate bill on tolling for the 520 bridge and 1053 was in effect at that time and the Legislature just basically rubber-stamped what the Transportation Commission was recommending. They did it, it passed with 78 percent support in the state Senate, it passed with 74 percent in the state House for Senate Bill 5700. They only needed a simple majority but they were able to get way past two-thirds. And instead of saying, OK, we can do it, we’ve proved we can do it, instead they simply inserted into the Transportation budget the re-delegation of the authority right back to the Transportation Commission.
Q: The Office of Financial Management announced fiscal projections for each initiative yesterday. OFM estimates that Initiative 1125 would, as your opponents put it, “blow a hole” in state transportation financing. OFM says it would jeopardize $123 million in federal grant funding and threaten other projects, including the expansion of I-405. How do you respond to that?
Eyman: We always knew that 1125 was not going to be popular with the unelected bureaucrats but we didn’t write it for them, we wrote it so that it would be popular for the voters. We’re not really asking for that much. We’re asking if you want to take from the taxpayers, if you want to double-tax them, charge them a second time with a toll even though they’re already paying the second highest gas tax in the nation, you can impose a toll, but there’s gotta be some transparency in the process. When you’re paying that money, you’re actually being assured that the money for the project is actually going to go toward the project they said it was going to go toward. I just don’t think that’s too much to ask from an extremely recession-weary and dispirited electorate that’s struggling with their existing burdens. Before the government says we’re about to take a couple thousand dollars – there’s no guarantee that it’s going to that project. There’s nothing you can do about the toll going up because bureaucrats decided that an increase was necessary.
Q: So you don’t disagree with the numbers?
Eyman: I think that the bureaucrats are doing what they always do and that is any initiative that we sponsor, the predictions that the sky is falling and chicken little predictions are repeatedly proven not to be true. All our initiative does is allow tolling to be done the way 520 was done, the way the Hood Canal Bridge was tolled. Our initiative just says tolls have to be tolls, they can’t be a brand new revenue source that you call a toll but is actually a tax.
We have rules when it comes to taxes. Taxes require two-thirds legislative approval, but if you’re going to avoid tax by having it be a toll, it has to act as a toll. It has to be a specific toll for a specific project and when the project is paid for, the toll goes away.
As long as this toll stays a toll, 1125 has no impact whatsoever. If you want tolls to act as a tax, 1125 steps in and says no. You’re trying to have tolls function as taxes. It’s typical Olympia but something voters aren’t comfortable with.
Q: How do you think roads and bridges should be funded, if not via tolls? Would you be in favor of a tax on vehicle miles traveled?
Eyman: They can do transportation any way they want, as long as they don’t violate the law and violate the Constitution. Our initiative doesn’t say you can’t do tolls, it just says tolls have to stay as tolls. They have to follow the rules – the initiatives are about just making sure that we have a Legislature that realizes that just because they want the money is not a good enough reason to violate the law and violate the Constitution. Too many of them down there feel that the end justifies the means: Because they need the money, laws and constitutional limitations shouldn’t stand in their way. So much of 1125 is already in the law. Tolls should be project-specific – that’s already current law. It’s already against the law to toll one project to pay for another. There’s screaming hysteria that our initiative is going to stop them from tolling 1-90 to pay for 520. Current law says that you can’t do that. You guys are complaining about it, well, I’m sorry. The law is the law and if regular citizens have to abide by the law, I don’t think it’s too much to ask.
For all of our state’s history, tolls on a project pay for a project and when the project is paid for, the toll goes away. Recently, they changed it and said tolls will live on forever. Our initiative says that’s not a toll, that’s a tax.
Q: You mentioned that this makes sure tolls are done legally and according to the Constitution. How, specifically, is the state breaking the law or violating the Constitution?
Eyman: OFM actually did a pretty decent job, in quite a few places they said we don’t assume fiscal impact because this is what we’re already planning on doing. But what they’re talking about doing, what they haven’t done yet, is talking about we want to toll 1-90 to pay for 520, we want to toll 205 to pay for the new Columbia River Crossing. They want to move beyond tolls being project-specific.
Some people say, I don’t understand, why do you have to pass an initiative that’s already on the books. We have elected officials that don’t seem bound by laws and the Constitution. Initiatives aren’t about passing laws, it’s about putting a spotlight on the issues. And for elected officials to know that what you’re planning on doing, everyone is going to know about. We’re being educated on long-term healthcare and liquor privatization now and what the plans are for tolls in the state of Washington. And there are a lot of plans that they’ve got that I don’t think the voters are in agreement with. They want to call them tolls, but they’ll function like taxes.
Q: You keep saying tolls, by definition, have to end at some point. But when I think of tolls, I think of driving in other parts of the country, like the East Coast, where it’s pretty common to come across a permanent toll booth.
Eyman: I’m talking about the Washington definition of tolls, the way tolls have always been in the state of Washington. The Hood Canal Bridge – they kept it on the bridge past the time when it was paid for and citizens had to actually sue to get the government to stop collecting money.
Same with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Tolls pay for the project, once the project is paid for, it goes away. That’s’ the way most people in the state of Washington believe that tolls work.
That’s the way it’s always been. I don’t think people are thrilled with tolls, but they might be able to accept tolls if there were some protections built into the process.
You know what, there’s a lot of really good protections in current law and the Constitution already, yet these guys don’t seem restrained by current law. So we thought, let’s reinforce those. During session, we said it looks like these guys are going to re-delegate toll setting to Transportation Commission, and that’s what they did. So like I said, I’m not saying that the entire initiative is reinforcing current law – the requirement that tolls expire is the way it’s always been – its’ new to say that tolls should be set by the Legislature.
So we think that our view is that when they’re talking about in these extremely tough economic times, I think voters are hesitant to give even a penny more. If we’re talking about thousands of dollars for families, there’s got to be these basic protections in the process. Without that, I just can’t envision the voters finding that to be acceptable. The elected leaders who are in favor of anything goes tolls, they need to realize that voters won’t accept it.