Senate hearings set for Sound Transit bills

Senate hearings set for Sound Transit bills
As efforts to provide car tab relief for Puget Sound drivers paying a new motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) for ST3 have stalled for the moment, Sound Transit-related bills introduced this year and from last year’s session are set for a January 24 public hearing of the Senate Transportation Committee. Photo: Sound Transit.

As momentum for Sound Transit 3 car tab relief appears to be waning in the state House, efforts are being renewed in the Senate. Three bills are scheduled for a January 24 public hearing of the Senate Transportation Committee, and supporters say the proposals will help restore public trust and offer better accountability.

Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28) introduced four bills this week that would do the following:

  • (SB 6164) Allow local government or their voters to nullify ST3 taxes within their district;
  • (SB 6301) Make Sound Transit Board members directly elected by voters rather than appointed;
  • (SB 6303) Revise the agency’s vehicle value calculation methods; and
  • (SB 6465) Require that Sound Transit seek further voter approval if the total cost for ST3 exceeds $54 billion. The bill is cosponsored by Sens. Hans Zeiger (R-25), Mark Miloscia (R-30) and Maralyn Chase (32-D).

However, only SB 6301 and SB 6303 are scheduled for the January 24 public hearing, along with SB 5955. That bill was introduced last year by Majority Assistant Floor Leader Patty Patty Kuderer (D-48) and backed by 14 Democrats including now-Transportation Chair Steve Hobbs (D-44).

O’Ban’s district includes parts of Pierce County, the only one among the three in Puget Sound (King and Snohomish) to reject ST3. Overall, the $54 billion transportation package was approved by a wide margin in November 2016: 45-55 percent.

However, controversy has persisted ever since it was revealed – in the form of higher-than-expected car tab bills – that Sound Transit calculates the ST3 portion of the MVET based on a 1990s depreciation schedule that places a vehicle’s value much higher than Kelley Blue Book or the National Auto Dealers Association, which SB 6303 would use instead. That issue was one of several dominating a series of investigative hearings held last year by the Senate Law and Justice Committee, then controlled by Republicans and co-chaired by O’Ban.

His bills were introduced just a week after Democrat House leaders vowed to act quickly on legislation introduced last session providing a refund for Puget Sound on the new motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) using a 2006 depreciation schedule. However, the bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Pellicciotti (D-30) was quickly pulled from the House floor. A recent News Tribune piece revealed that warnings from the regional transit agency about impacts to the planned Tacoma light rail line schedule may be dampening enthusiasm among top-ranking House and Senate leaders for modifying Sound Transit’s revenue stream.

In a statement, O’Ban said: “At a time in Olympia when Democrats are in control, they are putting on hold car tab tax relief. I am offering a bill that would significantly reduce car tab fees, offering taxpayers relief.”

Legislators are also taking a breather from a more modest bill sponsored by Rep. Kristine Reeves (D-30), which would allow drivers who owe more than $200 to set up quarterly or semiannual payment plans. It was scheduled for a vote in the House Transportation Committee after a January 11 public hearing, but no action was taken.

Assistant Ranking Minority Member Mark Harmsworth (R-44) and last year, like O’Ban, sponsored Sound Transit-related legislation. He told Lens that there are “significant issues” with Reeves’ as written due to the inability to effectively enforce bill provisions if people set up plans, sell their cars and then don’t pay for the remaining portion. “There’s no way the state can recover the additional funds. Sound Transit loses the rest of that year’s car tab tax.”

He added that there could be enormous financial implications for Sound Transit’s bond obligations if enough drivers sign up for the payment plan.

While proponents have said it will help those struggling to make ends meet if they are able to defer a part of the tax until later in the year, O’Ban wrote that it “would do nothing to cut the tax…unbelievably, you’d have to pay a service fee, so you’d actually pay even more. That isn’t tax relief.”

Last year, O’Ban introduced SB 5001 which, like SB 6301, would require that Sound Transit Board members be elected by voters; currently, they are nominated by their county executive and approved by the county council.  That bill passed the Senate on a 29-20 vote that included support from Democrat Sens. Bob Hasegawa (D-11), Guy Palumbo (D-1) and now-Vice President Pro Tempore Steve Conway (D-29).

Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost told Lens that decentralizing the board’s authority is an “important element of accountability that we’re really missing, and we don’t necessarily get from a car tab fix. I think the car tab fix needs to be coupled with measures of accountability.

“Members from King and Snohomish County…don’t have an incentive to represent people in the city of Puyallup,” she added.

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