Echoing concerns he brought up during last year's legislative session, Democratic State Senator Reuven Carlyle, is refusing to endorse Sound Transit 3 over financing concerns. ST3 is a $54 billion measure that—through a combination of property, sales, and car tab taxes—would double light rail in the region, including building a new line to Ballard in Carlyle's district.
In the wake of our state supreme court's McCleary ruling, which found Washington to be criminally underfunding its public education system, Carlyle argues that the property taxes Sound Transit will use for ST3—taxes that state legislators, including Carlyle, voted to allow Sound Transit to levy on voters—should be used to fund schools instead.
"I'm really uncomfortable with the financing plan," Carlyle said in an interview, "and I have been uncomfortable with it for two years."
Carlyle, who's made a name for himself as a crusader for a more progressive tax system, has argued the state should instead use taxes on business to fund light rail. He says limits on how much the city can charge in property taxes—limits that exist thanks in part to anti-tax measures pushed by Tim Eyman—mean ST3 would zap significant future school funding potential.
"After putting an additional $2.5 billion into K-12 funding over the last three legislative sessions since the McCleary ruling, Democrats and Republicans are struggling to find a final path forward for the last $3.5 billion approximately," Carlyle wrote in a guest editorial at Publicola this afternoon. "It’s virtually impossible to reach that level of new education funding without reform to the state property tax and local school levies. The transportation finance plan makes that difficult but essential project dramatically more complex."
Carlyle also complained that because ST3 also depends on sales taxes, those revenues could take a hit in another economic downturn.
"Regardless of politics or ideology or use of proceeds, we simply can’t pretend that the financing plan is broad based, progressive or reliable," Carlyle wrote.
In an interview, Carlyle said he "really wrestled [and] struggled" with whether to endorse ST3 and that he "care[s] deeply about 21st century infrastructure." But as the representative of a neighborhood that would be receiving a life-changing light rail connection under ST3 that will feature hugely in the selling of the package—and that contains plenty of single-family homeowners who may be wary about new property taxes—Carlyle's withholding of support is bad news for the "yes" camp.
Supporters of ST3 say Carlyle is essentially holding light rail hostage over problems created by his very own body of government. Tax reform, they say, is the legislature’s problem, not Sound Transit’s.
In an e-mail, James Canning, a spokesperson for the pro-ST3 campaign Mass Transit Now, put the responsibility for fixing the tax system on state lawmakers, who "have the power to make any changes they want."
Canning said: "If ST3 passes in November, and property taxes begin getting collected in 2017, no other taxing districts will be impacted. Period. Speculation about what the legislature might do in the future is just that—speculation."
(If you’re confused about the nitty gritty of this somewhat arcane but hugely consequential tax debate, don’t fret—we’ll get into the details of it down the road.)