Voters reject measures despite powerful, bipartisan backers
Seattle Times chief political reporter
There's a rule in Olympia that when a piece of legislation is backed by Boeing, the Labor Council, bipartisan lawmakers and the governor, it's as good as law.
Voters, though, are left out of that formula.
But they had their say in Tuesday's election, when they overwhelmingly rejected two measures that grew out of the thinking that a broad coalition can outweigh any opposition.
Both the gas-tax proposal and the unemployment-tax measure were backed by Boeing, other big businesses, labor unions, Gov. Gary Locke and lawmakers of both parties. Both measures — Referendum 51 and Referendum 53 — were overwhelmingly rejected by voters. And Initiative 776, which will cut car-license fees to a flat $30, passed with roughly 54 percent of the vote.
There were some obvious messages in the vote: We don't want to pay more taxes. We distrust government with our money. We don't believe politicians will do what they say.
"We haven't restored a trust in government," said Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Colville. "We haven't yet proven that government is operating efficiently. There is still a perception that government has more money than it needs."
Some proponents of the gas-tax measure say they may not have properly delivered their message to voters — that the measure would improve traffic safety and road congestion, that it was good for business and that accountability measures would ensure the money was well spent — despite a $4.5 million campaign.
Supporters said I-776's success should be a clear message to politicians.
"My gosh, how many times do we have to do this before you guys drop the 'We-know-best,' arrogant thing and start paying a little more attention?" said John Kelsh, an I-776 volunteer and donor from Kirkland.
Car taxes were first cut with I-695 in 1999. After a court found it unconstitutional, lawmakers approved key pieces of the measure, but didn't bring all car tab fees down to a flat $30.
"Part of it is we can think for ourselves," Kelsh said. "We're not stupid. We can read, and the amount of money you can throw against it doesn't preclude us from making up our own mind."
Secretary of State Sam Reed sees a trend in recent high-profile ballot-measure campaigns:
"Having business, labor, editorialists from the newspapers, and political figures all say we need to do something almost seems to be an open invitation for voters to go the other way," he said.
There is a sense that the political crowd is stymied by Tuesday's results and hesitant to move again until they further study the voters' intent.
Yesterday morning, Gov. Gary Locke spoke by telephone with Senate Majority Leader Sid Snyder, D-Long Beach, and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. The governor wanted to know what his fellow Democrats thought should be done now with transportation financing.
Chopp said that first they needed to know what voters meant Tuesday. It was Chopp who forced the measure to the ballot when he resisted lobbying by Locke, Senate Democrats, labor and business leaders to simply pass the measure in the House.
"I said, 'There are 10,000 reasons out there,' " said Snyder, who argues that rather than try to read the voters' minds, lawmakers should now craft the best possible plan — and stand behind it.
Locke told reporters yesterday he did not see the rejection of R-51 as a swipe at the establishment that financed the campaign. Instead, he said, internal campaign polls showed voters were concerned about cost and accountability.
Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council, said it's possible no campaign could have passed 51 and its 9-cents-a-gallon increase in the gas tax.
"You are talking about an economic situation where you have the highest or second-highest unemployment in the country, and it was tough to ask people who had lost their jobs to put another tax burden on themselves," Bender said.
Boeing will work with other backers of R-51 to research the vote, possibly with polling and focus groups, said Bob Watt, the company's vice president of government and community affairs.
He said it would be valuable to know how people viewed R-51's business and labor backers, "because, seemingly, together we didn't do the job we needed to do."
Watt said he also wants to know if an anti-establishment streak turned voters against the measure.
"If that's the case, somehow we either have to restore the connections between voters and government and business and labor and environmentalists, or we're really going to be in a pickle long-term," he said.
Watt said it's critical to Boeing whether voters are interested in what he termed the "business-climate" issues that the company has said are so important to decisions about its presence in the state, now that its corporate headquarters has moved to Chicago.
"We have to understand whether we have some very fundamental disagreement about what the future should look like or whether we're just not asking the right questions," Watt said.
One of the key issues for Boeing is the state's unemployment-insurance system. The company thought that had been improved with the legislative approval earlier this year of a bill adjusting rates among many state industries, giving Boeing a break and requiring industries like home construction to pay more because their workers take more money from the system.
But the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW), the homebuilders' lobbying group, collected enough signatures to put that bill up to a public vote. The campaign was crafted as a populist, anti-big-business move. Specifically, anti-Boeing.
"With distrust of government you also get distrust of the establishment and big business," said BIAW Executive Vice President Tom McCabe.
"We said it would raise taxes on small-business owners and ship the money to a large, multinational corporation based in Chicago."
McCabe hopes the defeat of R-53 will lead lawmakers to think harder before thinking support from labor and big business is enough.
As lawmakers read messages from the vote, Reed worries they will "be more timid politically." Instead of settling the issue of how to finance transportation projects, lawmakers may turn their attention to smaller problems that can be fixed with little controversy or risk of political fallout.
Snyder, who announced Tuesday he was retiring from the Legislature mid-term, said he hopes the lawmakers he's leaving behind won't worry so much about possible second-guessing by voters.
"I think we're kind of almost paralyzed now," he said.
Staff reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this report.
David Postman: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org.