House approves revived Sound Transit car tab bill

House approves revived Sound Transit car tab bill
House lawmakers have approved EHB 2201, providing $780 million in refunds to Puget Sound drivers paying the new Sound Transit 3 car tab tax. The 60-37 vote reflected a split in both the Democrat and Republican caucuses as to whether the bill was too mild or too extreme. Photo: Senate Republicans

House lawmakers approved a Democrat-sponsored bill Wednesday reintroduced from last year’s session that reforms Sound Transit’s ST3 motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) calculation on the same day the Senate Transportation Committee held public hearings on a Republican-backed proposal calling for even greater changes. A mixture of supporters and opponents argued that while the relief isn’t enough, it’s better than nothing.

“Here we are trying to make something that we don’t really like suck marginally less,” Rep. Morgan Irwin (R-31) said. “I wish it went further.”

EHB 2201 would offer Puget Sound drivers paying the new ST3 a refund on the difference between the MVET paid to Sound Transit based on its current vehicle depreciation schedule and a 2006 schedule that aligns more closely with Kelley Blue Book. The move is expected to return $780 million to regional taxpayers.

“The public expects for us to pass this today,” Prime sponsor Rep. Mike Pellicciotti (D-30) said on the House floor. “Good government demands for us to pass this today. it is time to fix this issue.”

However, the 60-37 vote conveyed a split within House Democrats and Republicans, but for different reasons. Reflecting House Republican sentiment more accurately is SB 6303, which received a public hearing Wednesday in the Senate Transportation Committee. That bill would have Sound Transit use Kelley Blue Book for calculating car tab fees. Meanwhile, Democrats have been wary of approving car tab relief because of concerns over how it will impact light rail project timelines.

That apprehension was expressed by House Transportation Chair Judy Clibborn (D-41) during the House floor debate over EHB 2201. “We’re going to make sure that the Sound Transit tabs are fair when it comes to car values, but we’re also going to make sure that we fund those projects. In the Puget Sound area, those projects are critical.”

“We have to have this (transit). It is essential to our economy to make sure we can move people through the central Puget Sound area. We don’t want to leave people off who are on the end of these projects.”

Lawmakers such as Rep. Mark Hargrove (R-47), who introduced several proposed amendments, said that relief can’t wait. “We need to make much greater strides to give more relief to our constituents. We’re taking the tiniest little step to do that. It’s a shame we couldn’t go much further.”

Echoing that sentiment was Rep. Christine Kilduff (D-28): “If we don’t take action on this legislation, our constituents are going to get even angrier.”

Another ST3-related bill moving through the House is HB 2357, which would allow drivers owing more than $200 in car tab fees to set up payment plans. Its supporters say it will help taxpayers fit the new costs within their budgets, but detractors see it as a sign of excessive taxation.

“We haven’t had to do that before,” Hargrove said. “When my constituents are getting their car tab fees it smacks them right now in the face. It’s huge.”

Other Republicans who reluctantly supported the bill included Rep. Mark Harmsworth, who called it “just an itsy bitsy fix on what we need to get done,” but added “we’ll take what we can now. We need some real relief.”

At the same time, Irwin praised Pellicciotti for introducing a bill he’s likely to get flak for form members of his own party. “We need that kind of courage in this body.”

“I think there’s probably a lot of people on the other side of the aisle saying this goes too far,” he added.

While Rep. Dick Muri (R-28) called the tax refund “chump change,” a few Republicans such as Rep. Jacquelyn Maycumber (R-7) actually opposed the bill in favor of Sound Transit. “This bill goes against what the people requested and the people voted for. Let’s make sure we bring this world class system to Seattle, so we have the best…what the people requested.”

The bill now advances to the Senate Transportation Committee.

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