We rural, clear skies Washingtonians usually fail to win ballot measures against densely packed damp citizens west of the Northern Cascades. Surprisingly, I found myself in the majority of Douglas County residents who overwhelmingly passed an odious tax onto rural citizens. The bitter fight nevertheless produced a margin of victory that surprised almost everybody, including me. We were surprised because we overlooked our traditions of fairness and neighborliness.
To be clear, the size of the tax was not the issue, ten cents per $100 of personal goods excluding groceries and prescription drugs. The tax would have added twenty five cents to my wife’s and my shopping the last two weeks.
To be even clearer, the tax fully bailed out investors holding defaulted debt for an overly expensive regional Public Facilities District (PFD) Event Center in the City of Wenatchee. Coincidentally the tax bailed out Wenatchee, whose leaders guaranteed the debt and promised there would never be taxes on any jurisdictions that joined the PFD. My County had unanimously joined without voter approval, but two new commissioners have won election partly on their opposition to County participation.
Amid months of wrangling, local State Representatives attempted two rescue bills in the House that failed in the Senate because local citizens and officials remained divided about the feasibility of the bills. To the end, my County Commissioners kept their pledge to prevent a county-wide vote, instead proposing a plan to tax Wenatchee and my city, East Wenatchee.
State Senator Linda Evans Parlette wouldn’t endorse either of the two bills and my commissioners complained to her. She told me, “I told everyone I wouldn’t support any plan without full local agreement and that did not pencil out. The legislature is sick of this because the House voted twice on bills that did not pass.”
Finally my Commissioners united with others to avoid legal expenses from default. They signed a detailed agreement that included putting the tax measure on the County ballot and addressed rural objections by requiring Wenatchee pay most of the cost and pursue legal claims for damages that would reimburse taxpayer funds.
. Parlette told me she inserted authority to propose the tax into existing Senate Bill 5984, which also strengthened State Treasury oversight to avoid similar financing disasters. She wrote provisions to terminate the taxes after debt was paid and brought together the Senate Ways and Means attorney and the PFD attorney to craft the bill according to the agreement.
The three Commissioners expected a close vote based on fierce opposition from their neighbors lying east of the great divide of the Columbia River. The one surviving Commissioner, the southerner, lives the furthest south in East Wenatchee. A second Commissioner, the central resident, lives in a precinct in the middle of the rural plateau atop the county. The third Commissioner lives in on the crown of the county in a city where he successfully led his citizens to stay out of the PFD when he was mayor. Therefore, he didn’t even have a vote and didn’t take a position. He told me neighbors outside his incorporated city were angry to discover they had to vote, although they were glad they could vote against it. We had a political thriller on our hands.
Sixty-five percent of voters overwhelmed thirty-five percent of the voters, a margin within two percentage points of two-to-one. Official results showed voters approved it in each of the Commissioner Districts, including sixty-six percent in the northerner’s district. How did that happen?
Event Center ticket buyers supported it. After a tip from a reader, I asked the Center for data on ticket buyers by zip code for 2011 performances, excluding the popular hockey team. People in the zip code for East Wenatchee’s urban area purchased 7,136 tickets. While I couldn’t precisely match zip codes to precincts, I estimated 82 percent of county voters were from that area and they voted heavily in favor.
People in the remaining zip codes purchased 610 tickets. Voters in those zip codes voted against the bailout, but represented only 18 percent of the vote. They were buried in a landslide.
Then why did all three commissioner districts support the tax increase? Because of Washington’s rules for fairness in forming districts. Washington law assumes fairness may be achieved by meeting these three legal criteria: commissioner districts shall be as nearly equal in population as possible, as compact as possible and all precincts geographically contiguous. The only way to make our County Districts equal is to slice East Wenatchee precincts into all three districts and trade off compactness versus contiguous. The County approved the new Districts after the vote, but they are similar to those existing during the vote.
The tradeoffs for fairness make strange districts. The southerner’s district is a small contiguous area almost exclusively in East Wenatchee’s zip code. The central Commissioner’s district is centered on the plateau, but swings east and south to county lines and encompasses the southern area of urban ticket buyers. The northerner’s district encompasses adjacent precincts north to the Columbia River and then swings west and south along the shoreline past the middle district and inward to the urban area east of East Wenatchee, looking like a giant, backwards apostrophe. The heavily populated wealthy districts of Fancer Heights and Broadview on the slopes of the plateau overlooking the Wenatchee Valley are voting constituents with the remote, rural northerners who opposed participation from the beginning. The urban areas voters represented 81 percent of the northerner’s district. His opposition reflected his rural neighbor’s opposition.
We should not be surprised when the tyranny of an urban majority triumphs again. We should be pleased the Commissioners from rural areas represented residents well by extracting concessions before the issue went to ballot. After all, they’re neighbors, and being good neighbors is the saving grace of democracy’s tyranny.