Washington State Man Doesn't Lack Initiative

For more than a decade, Tim Eyman has been known as Washington state's ballot initiative king. He puts a new initiative on the ballot every year, and he has more raw political power than almost any single member of the state legislature.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now we're going to Seattle where one man has been the driving force behind so many ballot initiatives, he's known as the initiative king of Washington State. NPR's Martin Kaste profiles him.

MARTIN KASTE: Tim Eyman is in politics, but he's no politician. After all, what politician could ever afford to talk like this?

Mr. TIM EYMAN (Conservative Political Activist): Voters are voting for our initiatives in spite of me, not because of me, because I'm making asinine, stupid comments for about 11 months.

KASTE: This somewhat manic 44-year-old tries to get an initiative on the state ballot every year. It's his living. He says he makes about $70,000 at it, depending on donations from supporters. He craves media attention. The presence of a reporter turns him into a well-oiled quote machine. Whenever he flubs one of his soundbites, he resets himself. It sounds like this.

Mr. EYMAN: We've managed to get elevenem, eleven...

(Soundbite of Mr. Eyman tripping over his tongue)

Mr. EYMAN: Over the last 10 years, we've pushed 15 initiatives.

KASTE: Voters have passed eight of them, mostly cutting taxes or capping government spending. Eyman is sometimes called a de facto second governor or a third chamber of the legislature. He suggests a different metaphor.

Mr. EYMAN: There is this B-1 bomber that's circling around the top of Olympia, and at any moment it can strike.

KASTE: You're the B-1 bomber?

Mr. EYMAN: Well, the voters are the B-1 bomber.

KASTE: This year, Eyman is aiming that bomb at carpool lanes. Hopping in his pickup, he points out an empty lane on I-5, a lane he wants to open up to everybody during off-peak hours. He considers that empty lane a classic case of lefty state paternalism.

Mr. EYMAN: They have this dogma, this almost religion that says, we need to make it horrible for them so that they'll finally abandon their car and see the, you know, progressive dream of all of us where we all hop into a bus.

KASTE: In a state dominated by Democrats, Eyman makes a lot of people mad. A few years ago, one frustrated liberal even tried a ballot initiative of his own. It officially designated Tim Eyman a, quote, "horse's ass."

State Senator KEN JACOBSEN (Democrat, 46th District, Washington): We're the ones that fix his messes.

KASTE: Senator Ken Jacobsen has been a Washington State legislator for 25 years. In that time, he says, he's seen the legislature actually become less powerful because of the constant threat of Eyman initiatives. All it takes to blow up the budget, he says, is one bad ballot measure.

State Senator JACOBSEN: It's like playing Russian roulette. And every once in a while you blow off part of the state's brain matter, and he has no responsibility.

KASTE: Jacobsen says ballot initiatives make state governance more chaotic. But they can also make it more democratic. Political science researchers say ballot measure states have public policies that track more closely with public opinion. The downside, though, is that those same states also tend to take on more debt because of ballot measures that cap taxes. And a lot of those states have people like Tim Eyman. The political science types call them populist entrepreneurs. Many of them go on to run for office, but not Eyman. He's happy doing what he does.

Mr. EYMAN: Oh, I love everything about the initiative process. Whatever they say, well, it's, you know, for all the bad that it does, it also does some good. It's like, it does nothing but good.

KASTE: And really, he'd be crazy to run for the legislature. His current gig pays better and it comes with more power. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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