1053 bp BIG

November’s general election is still four months away, so you may not have heard much about Washington’s Initiative 1053, the latest venture from initiative impresario Tim Eyman.

This time, his biggest financial backer is BP, so no doubt, you’ll start hearing more soon.

I-1053 would institute minority rule in Washington state, empowering one-third (plus one) of the members of either the state House or Senate to prevent the majority from closing tax loopholes or raising new revenues. That, of course, is why BP likes it so much: they don’t want to pay more taxes on the pollution they create, so they’ve ponied up $65,000 to help convince voters to enable a minority of legislators to block new pollution fees. (Oil companies Tesoro and Conoco and oil refiner Equilon have each contributed $50,000, putting them in a three-way tie for second biggest funder.)

For some folks, the fact that Tim Eyman is behind it—and that BP is its biggest funder—may be enough to decide that they don’t like it.  But every policy deserves to be judged on the merits, rather than on who supports it.

So I’ve given the measure a close review. My conclusion? It stinks.

Here’s why.

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  • Let’s ignore for the moment that I-1053 is almost certainly in violation of the state constitution and that other states’ experience with minority rule confirms its ill effects. Instead, two simpler arguments:

    1. I-1053 is a Trojan Horse for the oil industry.

    In early 2010, the legislature briefly suspended I-960—Eyman’s 2007-vintage minority rule law for revenue measures—until July 2011. The members then set about closing a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall. They made huge cuts in spending and also added modest new revenue sources, such as charges on soda pop, gum, candy, and bottled water.

    The legislature also came close to increasing the state’s Hazardous Substances Tax, which falls mostly on oil. The resulting revenues would have paid for clean water programs for Puget Sound and other water bodies. It would have financed oil spill prevention and better infrastructure for capturing oil-polluted runoff from our communities. Oil companies spent a lot of money lobbying the legislature to stop this effort, which would have held them accountable for the pollution they help create.

    The main legal effect of Eyman and BP’s 1053 is to shorten the suspension of I-960 by eight months, from July 1, 2011 to election day, November 2, 2010. Why bother? Why would the oil industry put up more than $200,000 so far for an initiative that would only be in effect for eight months?

    These few months are important to the oil industry because they include a session of the state legislature. During the 2011 legislative session, the one revenue issue everyone knows will be on the agenda is a repeat of the Hazardous Substances Tax fight. That’s why the oil companies are funding Eyman’s latest initiative; they’re the main beneficiaries. If 1053 passes, the oil industry will guarantee itself a legislative victory. They’ll avoid paying their fair share for clean water in Washington, which might end up being tens of millions of dollars a year.

    2. I-1053 (Re-)imposes Minority Rule.

    Democracy’s most fundamental principle is majority rule. It’s a principle deeply held by voters. Opinion research shows that voters strongly agree with these statements: “In a democracy, a majority of legislators should be able to pass everyday legislation,” and “In a democracy, a minority of lawmakers should not be able to block everyday legislation.” Specifically, an overwhelming majority of voters believe that “All legislative actions on revenue and budgets must be determined by a majority vote.” (Caveat: This opinion research is from California—and here’s more—not the Northwest, but I’d bet my eye teeth that polling here would find similar public beliefs. Californians and Cascadians aren’t so different.)

    Initiative 1053 violates these principles. It re-instates I-960 and gives a veto to a minority of just one-third (plus one) of the members of either the state House or Senate. Should one-third of just one house be able to veto the elimination of tax loopholes that shower public resources on coal plants, bull semen, laser interferometer gravitational wave observatories and dozens of other business and commercial activities? Should one-third of either house be able to prevent collection of the revenue needed to fulfill the state’s constitutionally mandated “paramount duty” to fund your community’s schools?

    I-1053’s backers will likely attempt to market it as a populist measure to protect citizens’ pocketbooks. It’s not. It’s the BP Protection Act: an assault on majority rule that lets the oil industry off the hook for polluting Northwest waters. A tar ball of a public policy, Eyman’s I-1053 is ugly and destructive. It stinks.