Stateline Story

Few in Northwest Neutral on Eyman Initiatives

  • August 05, 2004
  • By Kathleen Murphy

Tim Eyman organized the collection of thousands of signatures for a ballot initiative that will let voters in the state of Washington decide in November whether to legalize electronic slot machines in the state's non-tribal businesses and use the tax revenue to lower property taxes.

Eyman is an expert user of a system of policy-making popular with voters that is now used in 24 states. His first statewide ballot measure, I-695, rolled back auto-license tabs in 1999, and he has since led four other anti-tax initiatives.

"If you really want to make a difference, it's the only game in town. Our initiatives provide solutions to problems that politicians aren't solving," Eyman said.

The initiative process began as a democratic reform intended to give ordinary citizens a voice in government and a means of curbing the power of overreaching legislatures. But critics such as Washington Post political columnist David Broder say the process has been twisted into a tool to advance the agendas of demagogues, interest groups and wealthy people.

"These players have learned that the initiative is a far more efficient way of achieving their ends than the cumbersome process of supporting candidates for public office and then lobbying them to pass or sign the measures they seek," Broder writes in a book called "Democracy Derailed."

Washington state residents either love or hate Eyman's crusades to make laws through ballot initiatives. His supporters say that he is fighting for taxpayers and keeping the Legislature in check, and that he has every right to make money from the political process just as lobbyists and consultants do. Even some public officials, such as Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, donate money to Eyman's causes.

"Eyman keeps the Legislature honest and in touch with the citizens, and I like that. I don't always agree with everything Tim does ... but a lot of time the Legislature just can't get the job done," Benton said.

Detractors say Eyman is a hired gun for special interests such as the Washington-based subsidiaries of Canadian gaming companies who are helping foot the bill for his latest initiative, I-892, which would legalize slot machines. Eyman paid himself $46,500 for organizing the I-892 signature drive.

"His latest proposal is going to have Las Vegas style gambling in every part of the state, every bowling alley, every tavern, every restaurant," Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D) said. "I just hope the people of the state of Washington recognize that all he cares about is that he gets paid, whether the ballot measure wins or loses.

"He doesn't care about the outcome," Locke told Stateline.org. "He makes big money even if he can't even get the signatures to put it on the ballot. He charges these organizations huge sums of money a week to get the signatures."

Drawing criticism from elected officials is like getting an "A" on a report card, said Eyman, who acknowledges he earns part of his living through his political activities.

"I've realized that resentment of the initiative process helps spur the initiatives along. What really motivates me is when an elected official says, Our jobs would be so much easier if we didn't have these Eyman initiatives to deal with,'" he said.

Most Washingtonians support ballot measures. A 2001 survey found 80 percent approval for the initiative process, said Todd Donovan, a Western Washington University political scientist, and an expert on initiatives. But support for Eyman isn't as far-reaching, Donovan said.

"He's a total lightning rod. There are a lot of people in this state who think he's the devil," Donovan said.

Eyman's political activities inspired Washington state resident David Goldstein of TaxSanity.org to sponsor a ballot initiative to declare Eyman a "horse's ass" last year.

"It was purely a joke," Goldstein said, adding that 50,000 signatures were collected anyway.

Two years ago, it looked as if Eyman's political career was dead. He had shifted more than $200,000 in campaign contributions into a for-profit committee from which he could draw salary. The state fined him $50,000 for what he calls "my scandal." Eyman said he learned that press coverage, even if negative, is beneficial because every story contains information about his initiatives. Eyman said his motto is, "You only lose if you quit."

Secretary of State Sam Reed said this week that I-892 has more than enough signatures to qualify for the Nov. 2 ballot. The ballot summary reads,"This measure would authorize licensed gambling establishments (charities, restaurants, taverns, bowling alleys, horse racing facilities, and card rooms) to operate electronic scratch ticket machines' of the same type, and in the same total number, as authorized in state-tribal gaming compacts."

Based on an April court ruling on the measure's wording, voters are being asked to legalize slot machines even though the measure refers to "scratch ticket machines," the kind of devices that people often associate with dispensing tickets for scratch lottery games.

Only tribal casinos are currently allowed to have electronic slot machines. I-892 would let non-tribal businesses operate 18,000 electronic slot machines, the same number as tribal casinos are authorized to operate.

Eyman said he will be a delegate to the GOP convention and support President George W. Bush.

"I'm a Bush guy because Bush cuts taxes," Eyman said.