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The Western Strategy

How to Stop Worrying and Defeat the Anti-Gas-Tax Crusade

Kathryn Rathke

Let's get a few things straight: Eastern Washington does not run this state. The cities of the Puget Sound region run this state. This is not arrogance, this is simply a fact. Eastern Washington doesn't generate the majority of the state's jobs. Eastern Washington can't even pay for its own roads without sucking off the rich tit of our urban tax base. And when it comes to presidential elections, Eastern Washington doesn't decide whether our state tips red or blue. We here in the western half of Washington decide, because we have more money, more clout, and more voters than they do.

So why are political leaders in Western Washington cowering before the supposed might of anti-urban voters on matters that are important to us, the latest example of which is the statewide gas tax, which helps keep Washington's cities healthy and productive by funding major transportation improvements? It's as if leaders here think they can't beat the state's weaker half.

The gas tax, passed by the state legislature last year, phases in a 9.5-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline over three years, and uses the money to fix some of the state's biggest transportation nightmares. Two huge urban projects will receive a particularly large share of the $7.1 billion in gas tax revenues: replacement of the rickety Alaskan Way Viaduct ($2 billion), and replacement of the aging 520 bridge across Lake Washington ($500 million). This makes good sense. The loss of either of these structures due to an earthquake or some failure of their antiquated parts could be catastrophic not just for Seattle traffic, but also for the overall state economy, which depends upon the easy flow of goods and people into, and out of, Seattle's port, airport, and downtown core.

The state legislature understood this, which is why the gas tax passed by comfortable margins, with 17 Republicans joining Democrats to push it through. But now an initiative that would repeal the gas tax appears to have gathered more than enough signatures to get a spot on the November ballot. Initiative 912 has succeeded by exploiting a strain of anti-urban and anti-tax sentiment that is particularly prominent in this state's rural parts, and if urban voters fail to stop the gas-tax repeal from passing, it will represent not just a defeat for urban values, but also the inability of Western Washington's political leadership to play tough with the winning geographic hand it has been dealt.

URBAN DOUBTS

Joel Connelly, a columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, put his finger on the sense of doom that is now prevalent among those lining up to fight I-912 when, in a recent column, he wrote that he could predict how this whole fight is going to play out. Like other battles with the state's anti-urban, anti-tax voting bloc, Connelly said we will likely lose the gas-tax battle too, after taking our usual steps: starting a well-financed campaign run by business and labor interests, airing a commercial featuring a lecture from a Boeing machinist, and promoting fruitless appeals from respected state leaders. Connelly called the tired exercise the "tax-revolt tango."

When I asked those who are gearing up to fight I-912 about Connelly's predictions, no one said he was wrong. "I do think we're going to need to look at getting a little creative," said Steve Mullen, president of the Washington Roundtable, a collection of major CEOs in the state. "But I'm not sure what that means yet." Karen Keiser, communications director for the Washington State Labor Council, described the coming fight as "an uphill climb" and said, "The question is, can we break through to the public?"

Pause, for a moment, to consider how bizarre this is. The leaders of the state's most populous, most economically powerful region have not yet figured out how to defeat measures that, in the end, benefit only the bruised egos of a minority of rural Washingtonians who have minimal political clout, wimpy economic muscles, and a grudge against big cities. What is going on here?

THE WRONG STRATEGY

The fundamental problem is the way leaders in this part of the state have been approaching the challenge. They are trying to do what they always do—make the logical case and hope people are convinced.

The logical case is certainly compelling: A gas tax makes sense, for both east and west. It makes sense to tax drivers to help pay for roads. It makes sense to prioritize projects in the state's biggest city, and to spread the rest of the money elsewhere around the state, helping fix roads and bridges east of the mountains too.

And it makes no sense for residents of Eastern Washington to complain about this. We have been subsidizing their roads for years, and continue to do so. Over the next 10 years it is estimated that $1 billion in taxes will leave the Puget Sound area destined for road improvements on their side of the state. For those in the east to now begrudge us a bit of their money to fix two of the Puget Sound area's most vital arteries is simply ridiculous.

When these kinds of logical arguments don't sway rural voters, people in the western half of the state get frustrated. And typical of liberals, which most of Western Washington's political leaders are, they blame themselves first. The problem, they tell each other, is that they just haven't been able to bridge the urban-rural divide, haven't learned to speak to rural and anti-tax voters in the right way, haven't dialogued enough.

Bullshit.

THE WESTERN STRATEGY

Trying to convince people in Eastern Washington of our point of view "just doesn't work," says Keiser of the Labor Council. "They think Seattle is the big bad bully, and their mindframe isn't going to change no matter what you tell them."

So give up on Eastern Washington. We don't need them in order to win an initiative battle. There are 39 counties in Washington State, but the majority of the state's voters live in the 3 western counties that encompass the bustling cities of the Puget Sound region: King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties. If people in these counties voted as a bloc, we could take the entire state on—including those counties to the west of us, which we often don't even need to take on—and would win with 52.5 percent of the vote.

This strategy would embrace the east-west division in this state, even play it up. No more media buys to win over people in Tonasket. Ignore Washtucna and Wilbur and the rest of Eastern Washington. Instead, focus on driving up the "No on I-912" vote in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, where it will be easiest to make the case against the gas-tax repeal.

Sure, there will be anti-tax elements in the rural areas of these counties who will be tough to sway, but it will be easier to change their minds because they're closer to big cities. They might not like taxes, but they also might not like the viaduct collaps-ing on top of them, or being marooned on the Eastside due to problems with the 520 bridge. And even if they rarely drive into Seattle, they will understand that its economic success is their economic success. Get labor's grassroots network involved. Go door to door in the suburbs. Tell people that a vote against I-912 is a vote against a bunch of economic leeches in the east who don't seem to care about helping our cities remain functional.

If we win, we will have broken the stranglehold that the anti-urban, anti-tax initiatives seem to have on this state, and we will have created a formidable force in state politics. If we lose, we take the drastic step that people like House Transportation Chair Ed Murray (D-Seattle) have been suggesting: We get the legislature to pass a law that says all transportation improvements in the state need to be funded with local money, which is what people in Eastern Washington often claim they want. Once Omak starts having to pay for its own intersections, we'll probably see a change in attitude over there.

 

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