Article by Erik Smith. Published on Monday, October 25, 2011 EST.
I-1125 is Still Ahead, But Trend Veers Toward ‘No’ Column With Two Weeks to Go
See Also: Dramatic Lead for Liquor Initiative in New Elway Poll
By Erik Smith
Staff writer/ Washington State Wire
OLYMPIA, Oct. 24.—Fresh poll numbers in this year’s anti-toll campaign show the Tim-Eyman-sponsored ballot measure is losing support in a big way – not enough yet to decide the issue, but certainly enough to show that the opposition is making inroads as the Nov. 8 election approaches.
As things stood last Wednesday and Thursday, Initiative 1125 was leading 43-36, according to pollster Stuart Elway. That’s a big drop from last month, when the ballot measure was backed by well over half the voters, 56-25.
A couple of weeks ago, it looked as though the measure was surging toward victory, overwhelming the united front that had been assembled by opponents of the measure. The state’s most influential organizations are all on the opposition side. But the stunning result of the latest poll shows that a significant number of hearts and minds have been changed in the last month. With just two weeks to go before the election, it’s not a trend that bodes well for the measure. The steep decline coincides with the launch of a $2 million ad campaign – backed by most of the state’s business community, labor and environmental interests.
“As people get closer and think about it and there’s more media, you expect to see a shift,” Elway said. But this is quite a significant swing. It shows the late-deciders are going to be key here.”
That final-weeks campaign effort may tell the story. Anti-tax crusader Eyman and his biggest backer, Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, didn’t amass a budget for a late-election media campaign. Most of their money has been spent. And so it appears the negative ads will go unanswered.
Near-United Business Front
I-1125 is a direct hit on a new concept in highway financing that is gaining favor among transportation advocates in Washington state – “system tolling.” It is a particular issue for the Seattle area, where a replacement for the Highway 520 bridge on Lake Washington is contemplated in the near future. Heavy peak-hour tolls are likely to steer motorists to other nearby routes, and the thinking is that tolls should be imposed on the nearby Interstate 90 bridge as well. The same principle might be applied elsewhere, for the first time imposing tolls on roads that were built and paid for years ago.
I-1125 would prevent that, by requiring tolls be levied as they have been since the state began, to finance construction bonds for the projects where money is collected. The measure also would prohibit variable tolling, meaning that higher tolls could not be charged during rush hours. And by mandating that gas-tax money be spent only on highway projects, reinforcing a provision of the state constitution, the measure also aims to block light rail on the I-90 bridge.
Last week Boeing and the Machinists Union launched a joint independent campaign against the measure, and the list of business-community groups opposing the measure includes big dogs like the Association of Washington Business and the Association of General Contractors. Playing a lead role in the opposition campaign from the start has been the Washington Roundtable, an association of the state’s largest businesses. Key question is whether the media campaign will turn enough voters against the measure in time to change the outcome, said president and CEO Steve Mullin.
“We see the nos going up and the yeses going down,” he said. “We’re encouraged by the trend, and obviously we have two weeks to go.”
Tolling Offers Solution
Mullin has been one of the leading spokesmen against the measure in business circles. Last month he presented the opposition case to the AWB’s annual policy summit in Cle Elum, debating Freeman and winning the final vote.
“We think improvements to our transportation infrastructure are critical to the economic health of our state,” Mullin said. Projects like the 520 bridge, the north-south freeway in Spokane, the Columbia River Crossing at Vancouver, and the 405 and 167 in the Puget Sound area are a few of the mega-projects that are critical to maintaining smooth traffic flow, he said. “Initiative 1125 would take an important tool for financing these projects away.”
By eliminating variable tolling, Mullin said higher rates would have to be charged at all times, even during off-peak hours when an alternate route might take just a few minutes longer. That makes revenue less certain and Washington construction bonds less attractive to investors, he said.
Just as troublesome is the fact that the measure would take toll-setting authority from the state Transportation Commission, an unelected body, and give it to the Legislature. “Other states do it in a variety of ways, but no one has the Legislature do it – no one gives it to a large political body,” he said. That also would make Washington bonds riskier, he said, meaning higher interest rates.
Retail Association Stands Against Tide
It should be noted that not every organization in the state has lined up against the measure. The state Republican Party has endorsed it. And last week two major business associations went against the grain – the National Federation of Independent Business, which polls its membership before taking a stand, and the Washington Retail Association.
The retail association made its decision over the summer, but decided to time its announcement for now, when the impact would be greater, said CEO Jan Teague. The key difference between the retail association and other business groups is that it doesn’t see a direct financial gain from tolling, she said.
“Our members feel pretty strongly that if you have a toll, it should pay for a particular project, and it shouldn’t replace the gas tax,” she said. “There is no accountability with the current approach the Transportation Commission is taking. A lot of the other groups that are opposing this, AWB or the Seattle Chamber or the AGC – a lot of those groups see new funding to replace the gas tax as an opportunity for their particular interests to get some money, and so they are supporting tolling that never goes away. And we’re just saying that’s not good public policy.”
Trend is Major Development
Now wait a second, says Eyman, the most successful initiative promoter in state history. The poll still shows the measure is ahead. And polls traditionally underestimate support for the kind of populist anti-tax measures he sponsors, because they measure registered voters, not likely voters. So don’t be so quick to count this one out.
“As always, it’ll boil down to what the undecided voters do. The key protections in I-1125 – transportation money only for transportation, stopping tolls on one project from being diverted to Christmas tree add-ons, requiring tolls to expire once a project is paid for, requiring tolls be uniform and consistent, and preventing social engineering variable tolls that hurt the poor and working class – are critically important to protect taxpayers.”
Yet there is a striking detail in Elway’s report. The shift against the measure is most significant among “perfect voters,” the ones who vote in every election. Last month, among these voters, I-1125 was leading 56-25, and now it is trailing 45-33. His firm surveyed 409 voters last week. The numbers showed voters are considerably firmer in their stands than last month – only 4 percent were “probably yes,’ versus 29 percent last month, and only three percent “probably no,” versus 10 percent in September.
The decline in support for the initiative should be seen as a trend, Elway said, but of course, there’s no telling how things are going to turn out two weeks from now. Washington voters are already returning ballots in the by-mail election.I-1125 could still bounce back, he said, though “you usually don’t see a turnaround like that in the last couple of weeks. But as I’ve always said, I’m not in the business of predicting elections. This is just what people told us.”