Last week's state supreme court ruling upholding I-776, the Tim Eyman-sponsored initiative that limited the motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) to $30 statewide, was widely seen as a crippling defeat for Sound Transit, which relies on MVETs for 20 percent of the funds it uses for bus, commuter rail, and light-rail programs.
So no one was more surprised than Eyman when Ron Sims, the King County executive and chair of the Sound Transit board, declared that I-776 had no effect whatsoever on Sound Transit's ability to collect the light-rail tax, because the agency had already issued bonds backed by the tax. Not only could Sound Transit continue collecting the tax until 2028, Sims said, but it could even issue additional bonds, enabling the agency to extend light rail to the University District, and potentially beyond. On Tuesday, Sound Transit announced it would break ground on light rail Saturday, November 8.
Sound Transit's mulish resistance in the face of a blatant anti-light-rail ruling won't go untested. The state supreme court left the exact effect of I-776 on Sound Transit's taxing authority to King County Superior Court justice Mary Yu--the same judge who originally ruled in Sound Transit's favor in February. The Stranger sat down with Eyman to discuss the latest ruling, the implications of I-776, and the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that is Sound Transit.
The morning I-776 was upheld, you sent out a statement claiming the ruling "crushed [the] opposition" to $30 tabs. But later that same day, Ron Sims held a press conference saying the initiative left the light-rail car tax "undisturbed." Who's right?
[Sims] was clearly defensive, sweating like I've never seen him sweat. It's like the guy who jumps off the building and at the 30th floor says, "So far so good," and at the 25th floor, "So far so good." It's like they haven't even read 776. The language is abundantly clear: 776 requires the motor vehicle excise tax to be repealed on the effective date of the measure, which was December 5, 2002. They didn't deserve an additional dollar over $30 after that date.
Sound Transit got $500 million in federal funding last month. It's continuing to collect the light-rail tax. And the agency is even breaking ground this Saturday. Isn't light rail a done deal at this point? Is Sound Transit unstoppable?
Sound Transit is a monstrous battleship and 776 was a huge torpedo that blew a monstrous hole in it. Did it sink it? It's taking in water. Time will tell whether or not it will actually sink the battleship but clearly it is taking in water and sinking fast.
With 776 heading back to the same superior court judge who ruled against it in the first place, do you think it has any chance of being upheld?
I saw the [state attorney general]'s office do a very good job defending I-776. They could have put a 26-year-old intern on it, but they didn't do that. They put together a really good legal team to defend I-776. As long as the AG makes the argument, they've got it. As long as [Christine Gregoire] does her job--and she's done her job up to this point--then everything's going to be fine.
But if the superior court does rule in Sound Transit's favor, the only effect 776 will have had is repealing state and local road funding, including a $15 road tax in King County. You're an anti-transit, Republican roads proponent. If you didn't kill light rail, and you did kill roads funding, haven't you lost?
What was the goal of 776? The goal of 776 was to give everyone in the state $30 vehicle tabs. Well, did $15 per vehicle stand in the way of that goal? Of course it did. When the voters vote for $30, they expect $30, and not $30 plus whatever gets tacked on a year or two later. The fringe benefit was you had a chance to hold accountable the worst government agency in state history, Sound Transit. But that wasn't its primary focus.
But wasn't the Seattle-area vote on 776 a resounding endorsement of light rail? Even though it passed statewide, 776 lost in the Sound Transit voting area.
That's a crappy argument and I'll tell you why. Every initiative we've ever done has lost in Seattle. It's an anti-tax-reduction message. People in Seattle don't want their taxes removed. Every initiative we've ever done has lost in Seattle by roughly the same percentage that 776 lost in Seattle. You can't read into that, "Oh, therefore the voters were looking into the finer nuances of 776 and saw that this was an attack on Sound Transit." [The claim that] 776 lost in Seattle so therefore the people of Seattle love light rail--that's a crock. There's never been any vote on light rail since 1996. There just hasn't been. No way, shape, or form. But there has been a statewide vote on whether or not you want to have $30 tabs, and that's passed twice now.
What does this ruling mean for votes on future taxes, like the $14 billion regional transportation package that's supposed to go before Puget Sound-area voters next year?
If Sound Transit is going to continue to collect this [tax] and be dragged kicking and screaming before they stop collecting it, they're undercutting the regional tax package in a dramatic way. How can they possibly say, "We're illegally confiscating billions of your money, taxpayers--would you mind giving us $14 billion more?" It defies common sense. If they're going to break the law with impunity, that is going to sour voters when the government's asking for more money in the future.