Nobody has written more forcefully, more fully, and more foully about Washington State's absurdly fucked-up tax system than I have. Thanks to our lack of an income tax and our overreliance on sales and excise taxes, Washington has the most regressive tax structure in the nation—a tax structure in which our poorest households pay six times the effective rate of our wealthiest households. If you earn less than $20,000 a year, you pay a backbreaking 16.9 percent in state and local taxes; if you earn more than $430,000 a year, you pay a scant 2.8 percent.
It is unfair. It is unsustainable. It is indefensible.
So then why do I urge you to vote "Yes" in an April 22 special election to make our taxes even more regressive?
"We're out of options," laments King County Council chair Larry Phillips. County voters will be asked to choose between a 17 percent cut in Metro bus service or higher taxes. "It's either bus cuts or this," warns Phillips. "One or the other."
And nothing could be more regressive than cutting transit.
After six years of cuts, cost savings, and fare increases, the council voted unanimously on February 24 to form a Transportation Benefit District and send a tax package directly to voters. Lacking the authority that Olympia had promised us, to pass more progressive taxes, but failed to deliver, voters will be asked to approve two arguably regressive taxes: a flat $60 annual car-tab fee, plus a tenth of a cent increase in the county sales tax. The new taxes would raise $130 million a year, 60 percent for Metro and 40 percent to fund county and city roads.
Some opponents will cynically point to the regressive nature of these taxes as an argument for voting "No." But Phillips hopes that voters will adopt a different perspective. "What's really on the ballot is those transit cuts," says Phillips. "The most regressive thing we can do is cut bus service."
And with Metro facing a looming $75 million budget gap, that is the choice before voters: either raise taxes or trim 600,000 hours of annual bus service, eliminating up to 74 bus routes and reducing or revising service on another 107 routes. For example, the 21, 22, 37, and 57 might all be eliminated, dramatically reducing service in West Seattle. The cuts would affect 80 percent of Metro bus riders and put an estimated 30,000 additional cars back on our already congested roads. Bus cuts affect 100 percent of the people who use our roads and highways, by increasing congestion and lengthening commutes. But by far, the people who the cuts would impact the most are those who can least afford it: the young, the elderly, people with disabilities, and low-income individuals and families who depend on Metro to get to and from home, work, school, and human services.
Indeed, a 2012 report on the impact of transit cuts commissioned by the National Research Council (NRC) found that these most vulnerable populations are also those with the fewest transportation alternatives. "Without public transportation, these transit-dependent people lost their independence including access to jobs and medical services," the report concluded. "In the worst cases, vulnerable residents were stranded at home."
In Pierce County, where bus service was decimated after voters there repeatedly rejected tax increases, the NRC report found that transit cuts disproportionately impacted the most transit-dependent populations. More than one quarter of riders had no licensed driver in the family, and 62 percent of midday nonpeak riders had household incomes below $20,000. Non-Medicaid-eligible people with disabilities living in outlying areas now have trouble accessing life-sustaining medical appointments, according to the report. Some low-income and disabled residents have lost their jobs due to lack of transit, while others now experience much longer commutes.
"Their loss of transportation to access opportunities perpetuated the poverty cycle," the NRC report concluded. Pierce Transit is a case study in regressive transit cuts that would be immoral to repeat.
But with skyrocketing urban rents and home prices steadily pushing the working poor into outlying suburbs, that same disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities would surely be duplicated here in King County. "Social services and jobs remain in the city, even as the working poor have moved out," explains Phillips. "If you're working poor, more than likely you are taking transit."
And if you think Metro is bluffing, Phillips invites you to take a closer look at the agency's finances. Like most transit agencies nationwide, Metro saw its revenues plummet due to the Great Recession—through 2015, Metro will collect $1.2 billion less sales-tax revenue than had previously been projected. Through a series of cuts, efficiencies, contract concessions, and four straight years of fare increases, Metro has saved or gained $798 million from 2009 to 2013. The reserve funds have been sucked dry, a temporary $20 car-tab fee is about to expire, and fares are continuing to rise. We've run out of options.
Both the car tab and the sales tax are regressive, so yes, they disproportionately impact the working poor, too. To lessen that impact, the council has approved a $20 annual rebate for car owners earning below 200 percent of the federal poverty level—about $23,000 for an individual, $47,000 for a family of four. The council has also approved a new low-income fare—only the second in the nation—of $1.50 (peak, off-peak, and multi-zone) to become available when a scheduled 25-cent general fare increase goes into effect in March 2015. And if the tax measure passes, that low-income fare will be reduced another quarter to $1.25.
It's not perfect, but it's something. And it's sure as hell better than waiting for Olympia to solve our problems.
One Rider's Story
Carlene Canaday, a 75-year-old retired bank employee, rides the bus three times a week to volunteer at a senior center. "I can't be stagnant—I like to get out of the house!" she smiled, telling me how much she loved volunteering. If the proposed changes go through and her Route 21 bus is canceled, Ms. Canaday will have to stop volunteering altogether. "Right now, I get the bus in front of my house. But if they cut this line, I'd have to transfer to three buses and walk a lot farther just to get there. I wouldn't be able to volunteer anymore."
She's also confused about Metro raising rates while cutting service. "I consider myself a professional bus rider—my ex-husband worked for Metro, and I've been taking buses all over this city for many years. I thought the plan was to raise rates or cut service—why are they doing both?"
Both Ms. Canaday and the bus operators I spoke to are worried that these changes would also mean job cuts. "Our union is trying to help, but we have no idea what will happen to our jobs if these cuts are made." (DANIELLE HENDERSON)