Washington state's "$30 License Tab Initiative," passed last month by a wide margin, does much more than peg the annual auto license-tab fee at $30 instead of the hundreds of dollars vehicle owners previously had paid. It also gave voters the right to decide on any future tax or fee increase. On anything. Whether it has wheels or not.
The initiative soared to victory in the state's more rural and conservative reaches, while stumbling in the liberal, prosperous oasis around Seattle, home to corporations that spent millions trying to defeat it.
"This was basically the whole state voting against Seattle," said Dale Foreman, a Wenatchee attorney and chairman of the state Republican Party. Foreman supported Initiative 695, taking a lot of heat from deep-pocketed opponents such as Boeing Co. He may now make a run for governor.
Foreman said that in eastern Washington, an area that has not enjoyed the benefits of the boom that Microsoft Corp. spawned in Seattle's King County, voters feel their tax dollars are unfairly being used as balm for Seattle's growing pains, especially along its crowded highways and ferry lanes.
"People, especially out here, are fed up," said Foreman, 51, surrounded in his Wenatchee office by signed photographs of his conservative heroes--Newt Gingrich and Charlton Heston.
Preelection warnings from initiative foes now have taken on an unsettling sense of reality. With a projected $750 million loss in funding from auto tab fees next year, commuter relief projects, especially throughout the thickening stew of Puget Sound traffic, may be shelved. The state says its far-flung ferry operations could be run aground. And in some small towns that voted against Initiative 695 because they depend on tab-tax revenue, officials claim its passage pushes them right to the cliff's edge.
"We may have to get rid of our ambulance, shut down our fire department and even close our swimming pool," said Pat Gordon, treasurer of tiny Bridgeport, 75 miles north of Wenatchee. "If something's not done to help us in the next two years, we'll have to dissolve."
As lawsuits start to fly and state politics are thrown into disarray over Initiative 695's success, the car tax revolt here could have legs beyond Washington's borders.
California could be the next stop. While owners of the Golden State's 25 million vehicles enjoyed a 25 percent decrease in the "car tax" this year, and will have additional reductions phased in over the next four years, the fee for most Californians will remain far greater than $30.
"This is not a fluke," said Tom McClintock, the Republican assemblyman from Granada Hills who earlier this year tried unsuccessfully to kick off a similar initiative in the Golden State. "We're going to see more of these campaigns around the country. And this has breathed new life into our efforts in California."
McClintock said he's considering another shot at abolishing California's annual car registration fee, a levy he calls "an abuse tax, the last vestige of the old personal-property tax we enacted in 1935. It's an aggressive tax on a necessary fact of life in California. And what's especially galling to people here is that, unlike in Washington state, not a dime of our car tax even goes anywhere near our roads."
McClintock has not said whether he would embrace the Washington initiative's voter-approval stipulation on all new taxes and fees.
For anti-tax warriors in California, a "Son of 695" could hark back to 1978, when voters passed Proposition 13 and blew government-as-usual out of the water. Then, as now, tax-weary citizens eyed the state's fat budget surplus and decided to take matters into their own hands. Proposition 13 cut homeowner property tax bills in half and capped increases at 2 percent a year. And despite complaints that basic services--most notably schools and highway repairs--have been diminished since its passage, more than half the states in the nation quickly passed Proposition 13-type measures of their own.
Some in the anti-tax movement see the public embrace of Initiative 695 as a sign of something more than simply resentment over tab fees. John Wolfe of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association said the revolt belies "a declining trust in government.
"We've got these huge surpluses in Washington and Sacramento and yet lawmakers can't even decide what they want to spend it on," said Wolfe. "That was the same trigger that set off Proposition 13. Voters in 1978 wanted their elected officials to fix this, but nothing got done. Then along came Howard Jarvis."
It was Jarvis, along with anti-tax crusader Paul Gann, who spearheaded the move to rein in Californians' property taxes. Last summer, in Washington state, the man in the driver's seat was Tim Eyman, a mail-order entrepreneur from the Seattle suburbs. He had tried before and failed to cut the license fee through the initiative process. This time, Eyman offered voters a sharper pair of scissors.
"Voters felt if they voted simply for a license-tab cut, politicians would just raise other taxes to make up for it," said Eyman. "That concern prompted us to rewrite the initiative. The day we added the voter-approval clause [for any future tax increases] was the day we ensured our success."
Of the 514,000 signatures gathered, Eyman said more than half came from just 190 volunteers like Cary Condotta, an off-road vehicle dealer.
Condotta felt besieged by "taxes coming at us from all directions." One of them was the tab tax, which stood at 2.2 percent of a new car's retail price. If your new automobile cost $30,000, for example, your license plate cost $660. Condotta collected 1,200 signatures at his business while signers hauled off blank petitions to fill on their own.
As with many Washington residents outside the high-tech troika of Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond, Condotta was particularly galled by the spiraling costs of new highway projects, many of them dedicated to Seattle's tech commuters.
On Nov. 2, Initiative 695 flew to victory in Wenatchee and dozens of other farming towns like it, where, said Eyman, "people fear their hard-earned money is going into a black hole in far-off Olympia," the state capital. But in Seattle, the initiative fell.
Seattle says this will hurt.
"Over the next 16 months, we'll have to reduce our transit budget by $100 million," said King County Executive Ron Sims. "People said, 'But you have the money.' I said, 'No, we don't. And there's no other place to go get it.' And we're not lying to them."
Eyman, bracing for legal challenges to his initiative, said local control over taxes may be just what's needed, in Washington state and across the nation.
He said the state's $1 billion surplus will easily carry it through a short transition period. Then, he said, the dollars people save on vehicle taxes should find their way into state coffers, albeit through a different--and, Eyman would maintain, more equitable--channel: the sales tax.
"People are going to buy new cars, new computers and pump money into our state budget," he said. "I see 695 as a great shot of espresso to our economy."