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Originally published Tuesday, December 21, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Danny Westneat

Eyman's star rising at a cost

Nothing shows how we dance round and round with Tim Eyman, to our detriment, like the story of the Washington State Ferries. Our initiative instigator-in-chief sure is feeling his oats right now.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Nothing shows how we dance round and round with Tim Eyman, to our detriment, like the story of the Washington State Ferries.

Our initiative instigator-in-chief sure is feeling his oats right now. He just scored his biggest win ever at the ballot box in November, after two years of thumping losses. For that comeback he was dubbed "America's No. 1 freedom fighter" in a column at the national conservative website TownHall.com.

Wednesday he's having a news conference to gloat about, I mean discuss, the events of the year. It's undeniably true that Eymanism, after years of fits and starts, suddenly appears "monstrously mainstream," as he puts it.

This week he scored again when the attorney general said the way the state sets fares on its ferry boats must change, due to one of the tax and fee rules in Eyman's Initiative 1053.

As a result, a 2.5 percent fare hike, approved last month, is on hold. Six thousand bucks a day that would be going to the state, isn't. It sounds like classic stickin' it to the man, Eyman-style.

But did you know it was a citizens commission that voted to raise those rates?

Why would citizens choose to raise fares on their neighbors? Because of Eyman, as it turns out. Ever since Eyman's 1999 initiative slashed the state's portion of the car tax down to a flat $30, we've left the nation's largest ferry system without a stable, dedicated source of funding.

So instead of levying a tax across a broad group (all car owners), as we did pre-Eyman to help pay for ferries, the costs now are increasingly heaped on a narrow group — the ferry riders themselves.

The alternative is canceling ferry runs.

Yeah! Way to stick it to the man!

The Legislature now must vote on every ferry fare. OK, no big deal. But it's worth recalling why the Legislature gave this power to a citizens commission in the first place. Because having citizens decide was seen as fairer and less political.

Around we spin on the Eyman-go-round. The ferries project a $33 million rise in fuel costs over the next two years — with no extra money to pay for it. So the state is proposing to cut 28 boat sailings daily (out of about 500), including runs between Seattle and Bremerton after 9:05 p.m. and the final run from Mukilteo to Whidbey Island.

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"Hate Tim Eyman? I adore the man," wrote Paul Jacob, in the column that called Eyman the top freedom fighter.

Of course that guy lives in Virginia. He never needs to catch the late boat after a Mariners game.

What's head-scratching is why so many people who do live here, and depend on ferries, continue to go for Eyman's easy answers. Initiative 1053 got 64 percent of the vote and passed in 38 of the state's 39 counties.

As Eyman often says, this isn't about him, but us. I get that people are mad at government. But do we really want to sink our signature ferry system?

Yes, it wastes money sometimes. What big organization doesn't? It got its start, after all, when the private company that used to ply Puget Sound in the 1940s tried to force through usurious 30-percent fare hikes by withholding service.

Maybe we'll try private again. The head of the public ferry system today, David Moseley, goes around like one of those "end is nigh" guys, muttering "the ferry system is not sustainable, the ferry system is not sustainable."

Yet the first people to squawk about the route cuts and fare hikes were a couple of no-tax Republicans, from Whidbey Island, state Reps. Barbara Bailey and Norma Smith. They pronounced the cuts unfair and "devastating."

Here's a word for it: "predictable." We used to pay for it. Now we don't. What did we think was going to happen?

Maybe that's why Eyman is now a "freedom fighter." Bit by bit, he's freeing us from that tyrannical responsibility of paying for anything.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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