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Thursday, November 10, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Peeved takes a holiday

Listen carefully and you can hear the sound of change whistling through Washington politics. The anti-government, anti-community principle that dominated our state since the passage of the car-tab initiative in 1999 is taking a notable break or becoming passé.

Passé would be good. We have much to do if we are to keep our state livable.

The failure of Initiative 912, which would have repealed a 9.5-cent gas-tax increase approved by the Legislature, means the angry, populist uprising dominant in recent years can be pushed back if surpassed by voters' self-interest to accomplish something. The money is designed to pay for badly needed road and bridge projects throughout the state.

The effect of the initiative's defeat, a measure that served as a ratings gimmick for two yappety talk-radio hosts, is obvious and novel all at once. The Legislature is free to do its job. Imagine — the Legislature taking unpopular but necessary action and not worrying about the political heat. That is new and different

The vote against the initiative was a big one for representative democracy. Lawmakers did their job and survived an attempted voter challenge.

The most-compelling number was the strength of Snohomish County's resounding "no" vote. The county voted 54-to-45 percent against recalling the tax — in favor of building and improving roads. It makes sense, of course, for such a fast-growing county to vote self-interest. The fact that so many voters saw it that way was a pleasant surprise.

The vote in Snohomish County and elsewhere reflects not so much a renewed trust in government. Consider the strong "yes" vote in favor of the performance-audit initiative, which speaks to continued wariness and a desire to wring the rag of government for more money.

There is, however, a growing split among Republicans about how much government-bashing makes sense.

The state Republican Party foolishly endorsed the gas-tax initiative. John Stanton, former chairman and chief executive of Western Wireless, often mentioned as a GOP candidate for statewide office, contributed heavily to the "no" campaign. Stanton joined others in the Mainstream Republicans of Washington organization in calling the initiative what it was: a plan to do nothing.

Many Republicans and independents want government to be lean and mean — but not to the point of cutting off commerce or reducing the flow of traffic. Plenty of people in both parties want to get things done.

The increase in the gas tax this year is 3 cents. To a motorist with a 15-gallon tank, the joy of saving 45 cents a fill-up is not worth spending hours and hours of wasted time and money in traffic. Voters made that calculation.

To understand what really happened this election, consider the origins of the initiative. Last spring, while Republicans were stewing and suing to overturn the governor's election, Gov.-not-quite-certain Christine Gregoire boldly pushed lawmakers to increase the gas tax by 9.5 cents. She twisted arms, threatened a special session and wrangled Democratic and Republican votes.

The heat over the incredibly close race between Gregoire and Dino Rossi, which Republicans lost in a courtroom in Wenatchee, had to go somewhere. Initiative sponsors attempted to harness it into a rejection of the gas-tax increase, the most important achievement of Gregoire's first legislative session.

Some individuals process anger faster than others. Voters decided that telling government they are peeved might feel good for a few minutes, but how does that get anybody out of a traffic jam?

Conventional wisdom held that the initiative would pass. After all, voters three years ago trounced a similar gas-tax increase for roads and bridges. This year's initiative was more confusing because it asked voters to recall a tax imposed by the Legislature.

The earlier referendum, offered at a time of relatively low gas prices, was defeated by a commanding margin. What changed between 2002 and 2005? The population continued to grow. Traffic worsened. The economy picked up. Rocks rained down on Interstate 90. Hurricane Katrina highlighted the folly of waiting for another day on projects that only cost more later.

Washington voters are discerning. Few really like or trust government. But a growing practicality suggests you can overdo the whole government-bashing routine. You can lambaste and punish public institutions until you end up punishing yourself.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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