With legislation aiming to reform Sound Transit and its taxing formula for ST3 unable to clear the state legislature, lawmakers have now turned to committee investigations to continue their efforts.
At least one high-ranking Senate lawmaker has announced plans to hold investigatory work sessions exploring whether the regional transit agency engaged in deception to gain approval from both the legislature and voters for its $54 billion transportation package passed last November.
In their May 12 letter to Sens. Mike Padden (R-4) and Curtis King (R-14), Sens. Dino Rossi (R-45) and Steve O’Ban (R-28) accused Sound Transit of misleading lawmakers in 2015 about ST3’s total cost and completion time, when the agency first received authorization in the transportation budget to seek voter approval for the project.
The legislators also claim the agency is using an unconstitutional method for determining the motor vehicle excise tax (MVET). They made a similar argument in a March 2 letter to State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who declined to take any action.
Rossi and O’Ban were among a group of lawmakers this session that introduced various bills attempting to alter the way Sound Transit calculates a vehicle’s value for the MVET, allowing cities and counties to nullify ST3 taxes and cancel projects if they went 100 percent over budget.
The two legislators also raise other issues, highlighting the fact that Sound Transit was forced to pull a public-outreach survey for violating state law when it included a question about the respondent’s willingness to support ST3. They also criticized the agency’s decision to spend $858,000 celebrating the opening of the Capitol Hill and UW light rail segments.
The allegations were sufficient to convince Padden, chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, to announce planned work sessions to look into the issue, though an exact date has not been released yet.
In a May 15 reply to Rossi and O’Ban, Padden wrote: “Legislative oversight is an important constitutional duty and one that I take seriously. Any time a state agency is alleged to have acted or failed to act in a way that harms the public, the legislature should step in to carefully consider the matter.”
Rossi praised the announcement in a Monday statement. “The public has been crying out for someone – anyone – to hold Sound Transit accountable.”
However, King told Lens that he has no immediate plans to hold work sessions for the Senate Transportation Committee, though future investigations may occur. “I think the letter and some of the points they make could be very pertinent. But from my standpoint, the governor just signed the transportation budget…and for me to try and get the transportation committee back over in Olympia for this is something at this point that I’m not inclined to do. It isn’t that I don’t have some empathy for their concerns about how Sound Transit did some of these things…”
The agency has defended its MVET tax by saying that taxpayers could determine through an online calculator how much ST3 taxes would cost them before voting on the measure.
However, claims that state lawmakers were given an inaccurate perception of ST3 has gained credence from statements made by House Transportation Chair Judy Clibborn (D-41), who also has spoken in support of MVET tax reform. She told the Olympian in April that “I think if you had said, ‘We’re going to bond this and we’re going to ask for $54 billion,’ it would not have gone anywhere.”
The sentiment is equally shared by King, who told Lens that ST3 bears no resemblance to what the agency pitched to lawmakers in 2015.
“Not in the slightest,” he added. “There was never a reference to $54 billion or anything of that nature.”
In a statement, O’Ban wrote: “When even Sound Transit’s biggest apologists are forced to admit that the overall funding authorization and spike in car-tab taxes are shockingly higher than anyone ever expected, it’s time to ask what’s really going on here. If Sound Transit has been purposely misleading lawmakers and the public, we have a right to know.”