The Washington State House of Representatives voted 60-37 today to change the way the state collects car tab taxes. The bill is meant to address an ongoing fight over a formula that inflates the value of more expensive cars. But because those car tab fees help fund light rail, transit advocates are opposed.
The bill now goes to the state Senate. If passed and signed by the governor as is, it will cost Sound Transit $780 million in direct costs. With related issues like higher borrowing costs, the total cost will be $2.3 billion, according to the agency.
Last year, as some drivers shouted about the tax increases, Republicans called for sharp cuts to car tab fees. Democrats offered a compromise instead, saying their plan was a fair way of addressing an outdated taxing formula with a relatively small hit to light rail. (The total ST3 package was $54 billion.) But the cost—and the fact that Democrats, who supposedly care about things like mass transit and environmental justice, now control both chambers of the state legislature—has left transit advocates furious.
On the House floor today, nearly all of the speeches were in favor of the bill, either from Democrats or from Republicans who complained it didn't go far enough but were supporting it anyway. Just five of 50 Democrats voted against the bill: Seattle's Nicole Macri, Gael Tarleton, and Noel Frame; Burien's Joe Fitzgibbon; and Olympia's Beth Doglio.
"It is time to fix this issue," said Federal Way Democrat Mike Pellicciotti, who sponsored the bill. "The public expects us to pass this today. Good government demands that we pass this today."
"We are standing tough," said Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island). "We're making sure the system is built and we're going to make sure it's fair."
Republican representatives, of course, took the chance to slam Sound Transit:
• Dick Muri, from Steilacoom, called the adjustment "loose change, chump change" and said his constituents will be "angry." If Sound Transit 3 was on the ballot again, only 20 to 25 percent of his district would support it, he claimed.
• Paul Graves, of Fall City, said the bill indicates there is "bipartisan consensus that taxes are too high."
• Mark Harmsworth, from Mill Creek, said he heard from someone paying $2,000 in car tabs for three cars. Sound Transit's office space and marketing costs indicate it's an "out of control agency," he said.
• Jim Walsh, whose Aberdeen district does not overlap with Sound Transit's taxing area, said his constituents tell him, "just make sure we don't get dragged into that mess."
What can we learn from all this bellyaching? If it wasn't clear that Democrats stand to gain very little from this vote before, it should be clear now. No matter how many efforts Democrats make to show they are "responsive to the public and concerns about tax fairness," the people who hate light rail are going to keep on hating light rail.
As Republicans traded turns bemoaning Sound Transit, Democrats offered little in the way of defending the agency. Instead, it was Republican Jacquelin Maycumber, of Republic, who offered the closest thing to a full-throated defense of transit. "Seattle is a world-class city and it deserves a world-class transit system," she said. "And that's why the people spoke... This bill goes against what the people requested and the people voted for."
Macri, who voted for the bill last year but against it today, told The Stranger she changed her mind because "we need to make tangible efforts this session" to backfill the money Sound Transit would lose. It's not yet clear exactly where that funding might come from, though one possibility is to exempt Sound Transit from certain state taxes and fees on construction. "I wish the House would have passed a more comprehensive solution today," Macri said in a text message, "but am pushing for the Senate to do so now."
UPDATE: In an interview, Frame, who also voted for the bill last year and against it today, said she stood by her vote last year because she thinks using the outdated tax formula “undermines public confidence” in government and taxes. “However, I would like light rail in Ballard sooner rather than later," she said. "That is what my constituents want. Until we have a backfill for this [to replace the lost funding], I have to be a 'no.'" Frame said lawmakers should consider a capital gains tax, new real estate excise taxes, or other progressive taxes to replace the lost money for Sound Transit. However, she acknowledged, "that's not an active conversation we're having right now."