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The “Tim Eyman Memorial Bridge” meme: Why it got started, why it’s taken off

Last week, in the aftermath of the collapse of a key span of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River, a friend of NPI’s (Wu Ming) suggested in a diary on Daily Kos that we begin referring to the out-of-service crossing as the “Tim Eyman Memorial Bridge”. We ran with the meme, creating a now widely-reproduced image depicting the failed bridge with a mock roadsign over it, which you may have seen on Twitter or Facebook. Or maybe even in your inbox.

Tim Eyman Memorial Bridge

Traditional media outlets have taken notice of the meme and are doing stories on it. KIRO Newsradio’s Linda Thomas did a story this morning and C.R. Douglas of Q13 Fox is doing his own report for tonight’s newscast. (I talked to C.R. for the story; if you watch Q13 tonight, you’ll probably catch a glimpse of me).

Naturally, both KIRO and KCPQ contacted Eyman to get his reaction to the meme. Q13′s report hasn’t aired yet, so we don’t know what Eyman told them, but we do know what Eyman told Linda Thomas. From her report:

Throughout social media, the collapsed I-5 Skagit River bridge has a new name – The Tim Eyman Memorial bridge.

Political websites have been sharing various images of the collapsed bridge span, spawning parodies directed at anti-tax initiative guru Tim Eyman.

“Someone suggested we should blame anti-tax terrorist Tim Eyman, which I was kind of impressed with. I thought the anti-tax terrorist turn of a phrase was quite funny,” he says.

The “someone” who has been calling Eyman an “anti-tax terrorist” is Don Smith of Bellevue, who edits the blog Washington Liberals. We don’t agree that labeling Eyman a “terrorist” is appropriate – or funny. Eyman is a snake oil salesman, to be sure, and an admitted liar. His initiatives have caused our state plenty of harm.

But a terrorist is a person who uses violent and coercive means to achieve their ends. And Eyman’s means, while distasteful and often repugnant, are not violent.

Eyman brings plenty of hyperbole to our political discourse as it is. A light-hearted meme that makes an important point is one thing, but we progressives ought to refrain from imitating Eyman’s distasteful tactics. So, Don, if you’re reading this  - please stop calling Tim Eyman a terrorist. It’s unwarranted and unhelpful.

The next bit in Linda’s report concerns my post from last week and Eyman’s response to it. I noted in my post that there is no one in Washington who has done more to sabotage the cause of good roads in the Evergreen State than Tim Eyman. And that’s true. Eyman’s response:

“The power of one person, it is just kind of silly isn’t it,” Eyman responds. “Reality is the voters have sent a very clear message that they want tax increases to be a last resort. They voted for a lot of our initiatives, they’ve rejected them too, so it’s not like we’re some kind of guru or anything.”

One person can wield an awful lot of power, as any student of history knows. One person can be the catalyst for a lot of change… good or bad.

The United States is young compared to many other countries and societies, but we already have a rich and storied political past. Would our country be what it is today were it not for thinkers and leaders like Madison and Jefferson? Madison was just “one person”, but he was influential in the debate over whether the Constitution should be adopted. Jefferson was just “one person”, but he made the decision to buy the Louisiana Territory from France. That had a huge impact on this country.

As to Eyman’s second point, the reality is that the answers you get depend on the questions you ask. (We’re very fond of this phrase at NPI, and we use it a lot, because it’s important). Eyman’s initiatives ask one-sided questions, and when there isn’t an effective opposition campaign, the results are very predictable.

If a pollster asks people if they would like lower taxes, most people will say yes. If that same pollster then turns around and ask people if they would like better public services, most people will again say yes. But it’s simply not possible to have both, because there is no free lunch. We can choose to invest in quality public services, or not invest. We can’t get something for nothing, as Eyman frequently implies.

Eyman is correct that many of his initiatives have been rejected. When that’s happened, it’s been because of the efforts of broad coalitions of concerned citizens and organizations, who took the trouble to educate voters about the cost and consequences of Eyman’s destructive schemes.

I’m glad to hear Eyman freely admit he’s not a guru, because we’ve been trying to get reporters like Linda Thomas to stop calling him that for a long time.

Moving on:

Eyman claims the legislature “jumps at the chance to raise taxes” and they will try to exploit the Skagit Valley accident because “they are desperate to take more of the voters’ money.”

This is false. The Legislature is actually very averse to raising or recovering revenue. We’ve been asking lawmakers like Rodney Tom to close outdated and unwarranted tax loopholes for a decade, and they have made next to no progress.

One of the reasons is because the people they hear from the most are lobbyists who make a living trying to influence public policy on behalf of their employers.

Lobbyists are very, very good at justifying tax breaks, even tax breaks that have no public benefit or a very questionable public benefit. That’s why so few get repealed. And when Tim Eyman’s I-960/I-1053/I-1185 were in effect, it was impossible for the Legislature to repeal a tax break without a two-thirds vote. (It now takes only a majority vote thanks to the Supreme Court’s LEV decision).

What many people do not realize is that tax breaks are really tax expenditures. They’re a form of spending. When the Legislature grants a tax break, it is giving money to a corporation or industry that would otherwise go into our public treasury and be available to fund vital public services.

Lawmakers have repeatedly chosen to balance the state’s books by cutting services instead of raising revenue. There hasn’t even been an equal split between cuts and revenue; it’s been mostly cuts to services. Now, if we cut tax expenditures instead of services, we’d have more dollars available for our services, but the Legislature has mostly chosen tax breaks/tax expenditures over services. The few times they haven’t, they’ve caught nonstop flak from Eyman and the right wing.

Back to Eyman:

Now Eyman says lawmakers are looking for ways to pass a transportation budget that is stalled in Olympia. He calls it “ghoulish and crass” to try to blame him in any way for the I-5 bridge collapse.

“An accident is an accident and it’s kind of hard to peg that on anybody else except the driver of a big truck driving at 15 feet on a 14 foot bridge,” he says. “There’s clearly a lot of people that are trying to exploit this bridge accident in order to push tax increases.”

We don’t blame Tim Eyman for the collapse of the I-5 Skagit River bridge. We blame Eyman and his destructive initiatives for promulgating the infrastructure deficit that has left so many of our roads and bridges vulnerable to disasters like this. It’s the difference between direct and systemic causation.

I’ll let George Lakoff explain.

Two kinds of causation

Direct causation is the simplest kind: There is a single agent who purposely exerts force on something and as a result that thing moves or changes. You throw a ball and the ball goes through the air. You flip a switch and the light turns on. The properties of direct causation are simple: One agent. One entity affected. One action, performed freely (using free will). No intermediate cause. No multiple agents.

What is at issue here is how the event is conceptualized, not the way it occurs in the world.

Overthrowing a dictator may take millions of actions by hundreds of thousands of troops, but it can be conceptualized as a single action, carried out at the level of the army or the nation. “Bush overthrew Saddam Hussein” is an example of a complex phenomenon in the world being conceptualized as direct causation.

Systemic causation is rather different. Complex systems are commonplace. Examples are the stock market, weather systems, the power grid, the economy, a culture, the electorate, an ecosystem, the health care system, a social phenomenon (e.g., crime).

Systemic causation is a casual relation involving at least one complex system. Examples are very common: Global warming is causing the melting of the polar ice cap. The use of fossil fuels is causing global warming. The health care system is breaking down. The rise in health care costs is putting stress on the economy.

(from Whose Freedom? The battle over America’s most important idea)

Tim Eyman was not driving the overheight truck that we believe triggered the collapse of the span that failed. He isn’t directly responsible for what happened. However, as I explained last Friday, since 1999, Tim Eyman’s initiatives – and the Legislature’s reinstatement of two of Eyman’s most destructive initiatives – are a major reason why our infrastructure deficit is as bad as it is.

Take I-695, the first of those two. I-695 was the first product of Tim Eyman’s initiative factory, not counting I-200, which Eyman also had a hand in.

When the Supreme Court threw out I-695 as unconstitutional (it violated the single subject rule) Governor Gary Locke and lawmakers foolishly rushed to reinstate it. Instead of taking an opportunity to fix what was wrong with the MVET, they simply got rid of it, wrongly believing appeasement to be the best strategy.

The implementation of I-695 alone caused tremendous damage, as we can see by looking over the fiscal impact statement prepared by OFM:

Under current law, the state MVET is expected to generate approximately $1.5 billion in revenues during the 1999-01 Biennium.  Approximately 47 percent of that amount is designated for state transportation programs, 29 percent for local transit districts, and the remaining 24 percent to local governments for transportation, criminal justice and other purposes. Specific designations are as follows:

  • Local transit districts
  • County public health account
  • Distressed county assistance account
  • Ferry capital construction account
  • Ferry operations account
  • Motor vehicle fund
  • Transportation fund
  • City & county sales tax equalization
  • Municipal & county criminal justice

A further $1.7 billion that would have been generated by the MVET in the 2001-2003 biennium was lost when I-695 was implemented.

WSDOT has still not recovered from the loss of the MVET, despite the Legislature’s backfilling. The loss of that revenue source has had serious and negative ramifications for our roads, bridges, and ferries.

Had revenue from the MVET been available to WSDOT during the past decade, our roads and bridges would be in much better shape. There would have been much more money available to replace obsolete structures like I-5′s Skagit River Bridge.

But the long-term costs and consequences of gutting the MVET weren’t something that Eyman and other I-695 proponents wanted to talk about in 1999. In fact, Eyman has never been interested in discussing the repercussions of his initiatives. When Senator Adam Kline has tried to get Eyman to identify what cuts in services he would make to make the books balance, Eyman has consistently refused.

Fourteen years later have gone by since the 1999 campaign. In that time Tim Eyman has sponsored over a dozen initiatives that have worsened our infrastructure deficit. Voters have rejected some of them, but not all of them.

The ones they haven’t rejected have negatively impacted our quality of life and worsened our infrastructure deficit. That’s the link. Passage of Tim Eyman initiatives hurts Washington’s common wealth, which in turn results in a burgeoning infrastructure deficit (because there aren’t enough funds to fix or replace aging bridges, water mains, or power lines). The unaddressed infrastructure deficit results in preventable disasters and tragedies like we saw last week.

That’s systemic causation.

Ultimately, in the long run, the tax cuts and tax limiting schemes that Tim Eyman hawks don’t even save Washingtonians money. We simply end up having to pay more down the road (pun intended). The costs that stem from a bridge collapse (which include economic impacts) are far greater than the costs of proactively replacing a bridge that has outlived its useful life.

It’s therefore appropriate and fitting that the failed I-5 Skagit River span is becoming known as the “Tim Eyman Memorial Bridge”.

People are checking in to the Tim Eyman Memorial Bridge on Foursquare, reporting how their detour around the Tim Eyman Memorial Bridge went on Twitter, and sharing the mock signage we created on Facebook and Pinterest.

Tim Eyman Memorial Bridge

The meme has taken off because those who are able to appreciate the systemic link between Eyman’s initiatives and the bridge collapse want Washington to learn a lesson from it. Continued passage of destructive Eyman initiatives will only inflict more harm upon our communities. It may not be felt right away, but it will be felt.

Tim Eyman is a full-time lawmaker and should be held accountable for the initiatives that he proposes. He may not be an elected lawmaker, but he is a lawmaker nonetheless, who has kept his initiative factory in business for quite a long time, with the help of his wealthy benefactors.

Of course, we’ve seen that we cannot count on Eyman to behave ethically and responsibly. That’s why it is important that Eyman be held accountable at every turn. And the “Tim Eyman Memorial Bridge” meme is helping to do that.

4 Comments

  1. Larry E
    Posted May 30th, 2013 at 1:48 PM | Permalink

    Pssst – I-695 was struck down by the Washington Supreme Court. The only other Eyman sponsored anti-tax initiative that is still in effect is I-776, which lowered the state vehicle excise tax. Since the state share of funding for I-5 maintenance comes from the state gas tax, it’s a little dishonest to blame the failed bridge on Tim Eyman.

    Perhaps you could blame it on global warming, or George W. Bush.

  2. Gretchen Anna Sand
    Posted May 30th, 2013 at 2:09 PM | Permalink

    I want to give Mr. Eyman the old one-fingered salute. :)

  3. Andrew
    Posted May 31st, 2013 at 9:44 PM | Permalink

    Larry, you’re pretty much wrong on all counts.

    • While I-695 was indeed struck down by the state Supreme Court, it was reinstated by the Legislature at Gary Locke’s urging (and we believe that to be his single biggest mistake as governor). I-695 has been in effect for over a decade.
    • It’s not true that the only other Eyman sponsored anti-tax initiative in effect is I-776. I-747 remains in effect because it was reinstated in 2007. Parts of I-960/I-1053/I-1185 are also still in effect.
    • I-776 did *not* lower the state motor vehicle excise tax. It repealed local motor vehicle excise taxes in four counties: King, Snohomish, Douglas, and Pierce. It also sought to repeal the vehicle fees Sound Transit collects within its taxing district. However, these vehicle fees had already been pledged to pay off bonds when the initiative was created. Sound Transit argued – and the courts agreed – that the tax could not be repealed because it was pledged to pay off bonds. It thus continues to be collected, and I-776 has never been implemented in full.
    • As I noted in the post, when the statewide MVET was in effect, forty-seven percent of the funds raised went to state transportation programs. The loss of that money was huge. It significantly worsened our infrastructure deficit at a very bad time. Before I-695, money for highway maintenance didn’t just come from the gas tax.
    • As I explain in the post, we don’t blame Tim Eyman for the bridge collapse. We blame Eyman for the conditions that led to the bridge collapse. There is no question that Eyman’s initiatives have had a very destructive impact on our common wealth, which has negatively WSDOT’s ability to build and maintain safe roads and replace old bridges that are functionally obsolete or structurally deficient.
  4. Capelin
    Posted June 22nd, 2013 at 4:57 PM | Permalink

    Last I checked, the voters of Washington State voted for those tax breaks. They wanted them, Eyman’s only role was getting it onto the ballot for them.

    I highly doubt this bridge would have been fixed if the state had more money anyway. Why is it that other states with considerably smaller budgets (per person) are able to crawl away unscathed from bridge disasters?

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  1. By Morning Rundown for May 30th, 2013 on May 30th, 2013 at 9:30 AM

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