Never mind those pasty Republican stooges in the Senate. The plan to build more light rail in the Seattle area, known as Sound Transit 3 (ST3), faces a new obstacle in the state legislature: Democrats from Seattle.
Recall that Sound Transit needs $15 billion in taxing authority, not just the $11 billion approved by the Republican-controlled Senate in February, in order to build light rail to both West Seattle and Ballard. Today, the house transportation committee, which is controlled by Democrats, is expected to approve Sound Transit's full $15 billion proposal, including the levels of property, MVET, and sales tax authority the agency requested.
But ST3 still has a long way to go before it becomes law. This light rail plan is embedded within a statewide transportation package that's been unceremoniously killed by Republicans for the past two years. In an April 1 meeting, Ric Ilgenfritz, Sound Transit's Executive Director of Planning, Environment and Project Development, issued a warning to a group of a transit advocates: "If one person gets pissed off, this whole thing can crash."
Well, here's one person who's already pissed off: Representative Reuven Carlyle, the Democrat whose district covers downtown Seattle, Queen Anne, Magnolia, and Ballard.
"I'm pretty sure that as much as we're committed as a delegation and a region to being 110 percent supportive of Sound Transit, [ST3] didn't come down from Mount Sinai written in stone," Carlyle told me yesterday, his voice cracking at times with almost Biblical anger. "Just because they want it doesn't, in and of itself, make it religiously pure."
"They're asking for taxing authority that comes out of our pocket," Carlyle adds. "Of course they would like it. I would like ice cream as well."
Carlyle's beef with ST3 is that it relies, in part, on what he says is the state's portion of property tax authority, which he believes the state needs in order to properly fund education. In other words, he fears we're about to sacrifice education funding on the altar of improved mass transit.
Sound Transit has requested a property tax of up to 25 cents per $1,000 property value to fund ST3. "That $0.25 is 'in the gap,'" Carlyle explains, "meaning it effectively uses the state's portion of the property tax."
"My personal instincts are that the votes do not exist in the House Democratic caucus for the property tax—[for] using the state's portion of the education piece of the property tax for anything other than education," he said. "That's a big policy decision. It's not just about Sound Transit." The state supreme court has held the legislature in contempt for underfunding education, so money for schools does have to come from somewhere.
Carlyle confirmed that other members of Seattle's state house delegation aren't so hot on ST3, without going into specifics. "There are various concerns from various members on various issues," he said.
Some transit activists are specifically concerned that Jessyn Farrell, Frank Chopp, Eileen Cody, and Gerry Pollet aren't fully supportive of ST3's current funding mechanism. Chopp, the House speaker, has not responded to a request for comment. (Farrell says they needn't be concerned—she supports the sources of funding that Sound Transit has requested, including the property tax.)
"The Seattle delegation has to be in lockstep behind full funding for ST3," argues Jon Cracolici, a board member of Seattle Subway. "The delegation needs to strongly represent voters' most pressing interest in these negotiations. There is an incredible opportunity for Seattle here, and they need to get together and help us seize it."
For now, the delegation has put aside its concerns in order to allow ST3 to be voted out of the transportation committee, Carlyle suggested. "There's a time and a place to fight each battle," he said.
But what could conceivably replace the property tax component in ST3? Carlyle rattles off a handful of ideas: "major employer tax ($108/head exempting small business under 50 employees), modest payroll tax, incremental sales tax authority, additional MVET, regional tolling authority, regional gasoline tax authority, rental car assessment, my favorite of a vehicle miles traveled authority (road usage charge authority for region)."
Sound Transit, for its part, worries that voters won't approve of alternatives to the property tax once they put ST3 on the ballot in 2016. (For the confused, we hear ya: What's going on here is a slightly complicated two-step in which the legislature decides what taxes Sound Transit will be allowed to ask voters to approve, and then Sound Transit runs a ballot question—presumably in 2016—asking voters to actually approve those new taxes.)
"With other potential tax sources," the transit agency warns in a statement provided to The Stranger, "if you set them high enough to replace the property tax, it would pose concerns about public support."
Carlyle may be letting the perfect—or in this case, a long-term progressive outcome on taxation—be the enemy of the good here. Elected in 2009, he has made pushing for a smarter, more equitable Washington tax structure his signature issue. That's a good thing. Washington has the most regressive tax system in the country. Here again is Carlyle in his own words, via e-mail:
We’re totally, completely and unequivocally on board to get ST3 the full $15 [billion] and to build out [light rail in] Seattle+, we’re just working hard to find a way to supplant the property tax portion of their request because it genuinely adds to our serious statewide structural educational problem.
ST is asking for taxing authority within the state’s portion of the property tax—this is NOT merely local taxing authority. In three years no bill has made it through the legislative process eroding the state’s portion of the property tax. This is a big deal policy shift with huge implications for education and isn’t as easy as it seems.
"Reuven's concerns are legitimate," says Farrell (D-North Seattle), "and are something that are shared, as we're trying to figure out the McCleary [education funding] issue."
It's up to the Seattle delegation to play hardball, she argues, against the Republicans, who are pitting transportation against education."My constituents care about trains and they care about education," she says. "In an ideal world, we're not having these debates next to each other."
Perhaps there are progressives out there who believe this is an important stand to take. Last year, when the City of Seattle considered two Metro bus funding measures, it was entirely within the city's power to take the more progressive taxation route. But in that case, that route was well-defined. There was a clear passage to victory if local progressives got behind it.
The state legislature is a monstrously different beast. We're not in Farrell's ideal world, because whatever comes out of the House has to be passed by the Republican-controlled Senate. Screwing around with ST3 risks scuttling its chances altogether, according to Transportation Choices Policy Director Andrew Austin. "The Sound Transit board asked for this suite of taxes for a reason," he says, "and removing one of the three legs of this funding proposal could jeopardize ST3 both politically and financially."
That Sound Transit board includes King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who tells me, "The residents of Seattle, and those of the 36th district for that matter, want light rail expansion—including to Ballard—now... The simple truth is that the property tax is our only realistic revenue source that has both the political support with the public and raises the necessary revenues for a fully funded ST3."
In other words, there's an ongoing clash between local executives and our representatives in the legislature. "This is an intra-family battle," says Carlyle. "And we've got to come to a resolution. But we're still a family."
"My goal is to get Sound Transit the authority they need to build out ST3," Carlyle affirms. "We’re just not willing or able to whack education to do it. We can get there. Hang in there as we work through this issue."