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Wednesday, December 4, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey/Times editorial columnist

I-776: enough spin to turn a voter's head

Initiative 776 won. A voter would almost think that it lost, given the spin now being applied.

The legal spin occurring in courtrooms, beginning this morning, is an attempt to convert a loss into a victory. The political spin is the idea, spread by Sound Transit's supporters, that the election was really a moral victory for light rail because I-776 failed in Sound Transit's taxing district.

Moral victories require moral battles. Tim Eyman tried to frame I-776 as a battle against light rail, as did I, on this page. So did Seattle's quirky tabloid, The Stranger, whose endorsement delighted Eyman immensely. The campaign against I-776 did not frame it as a battle to save light rail. The opponents, funded by Boeing, the League of Conservation Voters and others, ran a radio ad against I-776. It is posted at www.voteno776.com. In the ad, two citizens kibitz about being stuck in traffic. They never mention light rail.

What was the biggest tax to be repealed by I-776? Sound Transit's 0.3-percent property tax on cars, much of which funds light rail.

Turn to the editorial pages. The Seattle Times ran a piece Oct. 24 under the byline of Dick Ford, a Preston Gates & Ellis attorney representing Sound Transit. The Post-Intelligencer ran one Oct. 22 under the bylines of Steve Williamson of the Washington State Labor Council and Steve Leahy of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Here is how they dealt with light rail: Williamson and Leahy said I-776 "does not mention a revote on Sound Transit anywhere in the initiative." Ford said I-776 "does not mention a revote on Sound Transit anywhere in the text of the initiative."

The words are written by the same hand — which says something about celebrity bylines. More important here is that the two pieces had exactly the same message: I-776 was about democracy, about buses, about roads, about Tim Eyman. It was not about light rail.

To debate Eyman, City Club invited Phil Talmadge, a Democrat opposed to light rail. I-776, Talmadge said, was about Tim Eyman, who he called the highest-paid politician in Washington. George Howland, political editor of the Seattle Weekly, said on KUOW-FM that I-776 was about Tim Eyman, not light rail.

There is no moral victory here for light rail. The only victory may be a legal one, if Sound Transit can weasel out of the law.

I-776 becomes law tomorrow. It says that counties must stop collecting their $15-per-car tax and that Sound Transit must stop collecting the 0.3-percent car-value tax. But because Sound Transit made promises to its bondholders, it can't lift its tax unless first it sets aside money to pay off its bonds. It has the money to do so; it has been levying taxes for years. In no way is it prevented from complying with I-776. It doesn't want to comply.

Nor does the government of King County, which also has bondholders.

The governments of Snohomish and Pierce counties have no bondholder skirts to hide behind. Snohomish has complied with the law and lifted the tax. Pierce County and the city of Tacoma are arguing in court this morning that I-776 is unconstitutional because of the single-subject rule. That is, that the repeal of their $15 tax is one subject and repeal of Sound Transit's 0.3-percent tax is another. The two taxes, they argue, should have been in separate initiatives.

This implies that any $30-tabs initiative would be too complicated for voters to understand.

The other argument to invalidate I-776 is that if any taxes are to be rolled back in the counties or the Sound Transit district, it should be decided only by the voters in those districts. Whether that is a good legal argument I do not know, but it is a good political argument. Where it fails is at Sound Transit itself. Sound Transit's voters should have the right of initiative and the right to vote on candidates for its board of directors. They have neither, because the lawyers who designed the agency made it that way.

Sound Transit is set up not for the convenience of its owners, the voters, but for the convenience of the people who make a living off of it.

Can I-776 crack that open? It just might.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com.

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