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Originally published Friday, December 19, 2014 at 10:45 PM

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Prime year for a state lying contest

We don’t have a “Lie of the Year” contest around here. But if we did, this year we’ve got a couple top-notch nominees.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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Each year around this time, a fact-checking group in Florida, PolitiFact, picks its “Lie of the Year.” It’s for national politics, and though the nonprofit now has chapters scrutinizing spin in seven states, there is no annual fibbing award for us out here in the Other Washington.

Which is a shame. Because we have some blockbuster nominees this year.

For example: “I would veto anything that heads the wrong direction, and the wrong direction is new taxes in the state of Washington.”

That categorical statement, uttered after a 2012 debate, was Gov. Jay Inslee’s no new taxes pledge. Which he broke this week by proposing a capital-gains tax.

He had been asked what he’d do if his fellow Democrats sent him new taxes for his signature. To say you are so anti-tax you would veto your own party’s plan, but then turn around and propose your own, is not quite as brazen as George H.W. Bush’s infamous “read my lips” flip-flop. But it’s up there.

Bottom line: What candidate Inslee promised, Governor Inslee couldn’t keep.

Now three weeks ago in this space, I wrote that we ought to impose a capital-gains tax to help fund the schools (as 41 other states have done). So obviously I agree with Inslee’s policy. But it doesn’t change that how he presented himself in the campaign turned out to be a “pants-on-fire” whopper.

Do political “lies” like this matter anymore?

I’ve been thinking about political deception because of our other top local “Lie of the Year” topic, Seattle’s Bertha tunnel. Remember this categorical statement?

“There won’t be any cost overruns.”

That was then-Gov. Chris Gregoire’s transportation secretary, Paula Hammond, back in 2009. Her pledge was repeated, in one form or another, by certain public officials from Seattle all the way up the political power pyramid.

It was a boldly foolish statement to make. Now that it has become painfully clear it isn’t going to be true, does it matter? Are any consequences in order, or is this sort of thing accepted as grease for getting things done.

I put the word “lies” in quote marks above because there’s no way to know if Inslee or tunnel boosters knew that what they were saying wasn’t true. I suspect they did. But Bent Flyvbjerg, a Dutch professor who has studied the statements of officials relative to public projects, came up with a more elegant term anyway: “strategic misrepresentation.”

Tunnel proponents surely knew cost overruns were possible, just as Inslee probably knew he was open to new taxes. But confessing would have muddied their strategic interests — namely, getting the tunnel greenlighted, or, for Inslee, getting elected. Maybe the pressure to win was so extreme they even came to believe it.

With Inslee, it’s also possible he has genuinely changed his mind. If so I wish he would just say that.

But what’s most interesting is the lack of much public reaction. Maybe voters so expect politicians to misrepresent that broken promises are no longer news.

It wasn’t always so. My first year as a reporter was the year the elder Bush broke his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge. It was the talk of the nation, far more than was Obama’s “if you like your health-care plan you can keep it” snow job (PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year” last year.) The first Bush arguably lost his job over that.

Later, his son would strategically misrepresent the nation into a war — and still get re-elected.

I doubt there will be big repercussions for Inslee or the public officials who overpromised on the tunnel. Inslee was probably going to back new taxes, and the tunnel was going to run into problems — it’s what Democrats and megaprojects tend to do. So maybe the broader public went into both with eyes halfway open.

Still it’s a curious dance we do to run our democracy, isn’t it?

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



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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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