Puget Sound drivers who want a reduced ST3 car tab tax may have to get as loud as the Seahawks stadium at gametime if they want it to happen. The 2018 legislative session ended with ST3 tax relief for only one small group of people: those who couldn’t vote for it.
The inability of state lawmakers to reach a compromise before the end of the 60-day session has both legislators and transportation experts wondering what further political pressure or reform measures are needed first.
Washington Policy Center’s Transportation Director Mariya Frost told Lens the outcome is “disappointing,” adding that “it points to the greater need for accountability.” However, she added that she is “encouraged that there are board members on the Sound Transit Board who are asking challenging good questions about the agency’s spending and priorities.”
Among the new board members is its new vice chair, Ron Lucas. The long-time mayor of Steilacoom and an opponent of ST3, Lucas was appointed to the board earlier this year. He told Lens that “I find it surprising that they (the legislature) couldn’t do any kind of relief. That was really surprising to me.”
A town of around 6,000, Steilacoom is located in Pierce County, the only one of three counties in the taxing district to vote against ST3. Voter attitudes on the issue is perhaps reflected in the number of Sound Transit-related legislative proposals by the legislators from those districts, including Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28). In this session alone, he introduced four bills.
Passed with a lone opposing vote in the House was SB 6475, sponsored by Senate Transportation Chair Steve Hobbs (D-44). The bipartisan-backed bill prohibits Sound Transit from imposing its new property tax, $.25 per $1,000 in assessed value (AV) on sections of land parcels located outside of its taxing district. The exemption only applies to a few homeowners in Snohomish County.
Several bills introduced in the House and Senate seeking a reduced motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) failed to make it to Governor Jay Inslee’s desk by Mar. 8. That included SB 5595 and HB 2201. Both were sponsored by Democrats and managed to clear their respective chambers but ended up being returned.
Driving much of the debate was the financial hit to Sound Transit’s cash flow and its ability to complete projects within estimated timelines. SB 5595 would have originally allowed the regional transit agency to dip into a state account meant for foster children to cover any losses, but that provision was removed after it reached the House Transportation Committee.
However, Frost says that argument is moot, because Sound Transit already has a habit of rolling out projects late and overbudget. Last year, the agency announced that its light rail link segment on I-90 between Seattle and Bellevue was $225 million overbudget. Several months later, it was revealed their Lynwood light rail link was half a billion off and would open later than anticipated.
“It’s what people have come to expect, which is really sad,” Frost said.
The view is shared by Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31), who introduced numerous Sound Transit bills last year and opposed SB 5955 for lacking adequate relief. “This is like this greedy, selfish animal that just can’t get enough, it has to suck every bit of life blood out of everything it comes in contact with. How much money do these people possibly think the taxpayers have? When is this going to stop?”
“At some point in time, you’ve got to say you’ve paid enough tax,” he added.
With lawmakers unable after two sessions to reach a deal, some wonder whether any relief is on the horizon, and when. The failed tax relief bills also coincided with a recent Sound Transit board meeting in which members voted to renew CEO Peter Rogoff’s contract after a performance review revealed allegations of questionable behavior.
Some such as Fortunato and Frost view it as further proof that the board members need to be directly elected, rather than appointed by their county executive. O’Ban this year introduced SB 6301 that would do just that, but it failed to advance out of the Transportation Committee after a public hearing. He also introduced SB 6303, which sought greater tax relief than the two bills that eventually made it out the House and Senate chambers.
Opponents of direct elections say local lawmakers on the board help coordination between governing bodies and Sound Transit.
Lucas says he sees value in both arguments. However, he added that “I think if you went to the elected body, you would get the same result.”
The reason: over half the board members are from King County, where ST3 received the most support.
Lucas added that there’s another problem; board members are often overwhelmed with obligations related to their county, city or other agency positions. That makes it either difficult to attend board meetings or leaves them with little time to give proposals a thorough look.
The result is a staff-driven environment and a “we’re here to vote, we’re moving on, and I’ve got things to do” mentality, he added.
“I think it’s a real challenge,” he said.
He said one possible way to address that is by having the legislature provide alternatives when regular board members can’t make it.
Even if an elected board never happens, Fortunato said there’s still a way to address the perceived imbalance on the board between the three counties – by creating a fourth one. Last year, he introduced a proposal via SB 5932, which would have set up the procedure for doing that.
The idea would be to split Seattle away from Eastside, where ST3 received less support, Fortunato said. “The elected board is obviously preferred, but this whole thing (right now) is madness.”
However, the bill’s prospects right now don’t look any better than the car tab tax relief; it has yet to garner a public hearing in the State Government, Tribal Relations & Election Committee.
One other possibility is that the ST3 tax, coupled with the new state property taxed imposed primarily on Puget Sound homeowners, will cause the issue to take center stage in swing districts that could tip the balance in favor of either party.
But there’s another potential outcome, Lucas warns. ST3 projects aren’t expected to reduce traffic congestion in Seattle metro, which is already some of the worst in the nation. That is only going to get worse as 2040 approaches; that’s when Puget Sound Regional Council expects more than one million residents in the region. That could kill any enthusiasm among voters for further transportation proposals from the transit agency.
“I think the crush of congestion will cause a change, in my opinion, to Sound Transit, because people just can’t get around,” Lucas said.