Cuts to car tab fees will cost Sound Transit.
Cuts to car tab fees will cost Sound Transit. Sound Transit

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The Washington State Democratic Party spent the entirety of last year urging everyone left of Trump in this state to get on board with Manka Dhingra. Dhingra was the Democratic candidate in the 45th Legislative District. If she could win the seat, Democrats would wrest control of the state senate from recalcitrant Republicans, usher in a blue wall to stand up to Trump, and champion working people—or something.

Well, she won. Dhingra is now a member of the state senate. The new session starts next week. And what are Democrats going to spend the first bit of that session doing? Undermining mass transit.

To recap: In 2016, Puget Sound voters approved Sound Transit 3, a light rail expansion package funded in part by increases to car tab fees. Then, early last year, people started getting their higher car tab bills in the mail and freaked out. The Seattle Times reported that Sound Transit was using an inflated formula to calculate the car tabs. Republicans seized on the issue. That was despite the fact that the lawmakers feigning outrage had reason to know about the formula all along. Legislators themselves had approved it; one even tried to change it back in 2015. And Sound Transit had taken the formula into account when offering tax estimates during the ST3 campaign.

To rein in the car tabs, Republicans proposed changes to the formula that would have resulted in big cuts to Sound Transit funding. In response, Democrats offered a compromise. A House bill sponsored by Representative Mike Pellicciotti (D-Federal Way) would have given some drivers a tax credit, costing Sound Transit $780 million. (The Transportation Choices Coalition said the cost would actually total about $2 billion total because of higher borrowing costs.) In the end, state lawmakers didn't approve either approach. The session ended and Democrats turned their attention to winning in the 45th.

Now, Democrats are about to return to Olympia. And, even without the threat of a Republican majority, they're revisiting this issue.

Asked about car tabs during a legislative preview this week, House Speaker Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) said, "We plan to move fairly soon in session to pass the Pellicciotti bill to address that. We think it was unfair about the valuation table. We need to fix that. The public deserves that and we plan to move forward." Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) agreed: "The senate will be taking that bill up and we’ll be passing it."

Some transit advocates see it as a strategy to avoid a coalition of Republicans and suburban Democrats taking an even bigger chunk out of Sound Transit. Others are pissed:


Robert Cruickshank makes a compelling case over at The Urbanist today that there is no evidence Democrats need to be doing this, given Dhingra's 10-point win and state polling showing Democrats head into 2018 with an advantage:

Democrats in the state legislature face no serious threat of losing seats or their majority. They are much more likely to pick up seats in November. Democrats from seats within the Sound Transit district are even safer. Hillary Clinton carried legislative districts by huge margins–winning the 30th by 20 points. Given the electoral trends and the polls, Democrats in these districts have no reason to fear an electoral backlash–especially when one failed to materialize after no action was taken on the MVET in 2017.

Democrats in Olympia are convinced they are just a few steps ahead of an angry pack of anti-tax wolves ready to destroy their majority. There is no evidence in 2018 that this fear is justified.

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There are real threats to Sound Transit, as Cruickshank points out, like a potential loss of federal funding and cost overruns on the extension to Lynnwood. Yet, here are Democrats adding another new threat to the list with preemptive compromise.

The party's position on car tabs shouldn't come as a huge surprise. Every House Democrat supported the bill last year. And during the campaign in the 45th, Dhingra said she supported the House bill.

But imagine if Democrats—finally in control in Olympia—used their majority to advance pro-transit policies. Instead, Washington state Democrats seem determined to do what they always do: use their majorities to protect their majorities. That might make sense in an election year that could be tight. But 2018 is shaping up to be a big year for Democrats. If Democrats can't risk doing the right thing now—if they won't stand up to drivers and for transit in 2018—will they ever?