Dominating the Senate Transportation Committee agenda January 24 was a long list of public hearings regarding Sound Transit’s new ST3 motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) and renewed efforts to reform the regional transit agency’s governance structure.
As House lawmakers passed a revived bill from last year’s session offering car tab relief for Puget Sound drivers, Transportation members debated the merits of two rival bills and possible compromise on direct elections for Sound Transit’s Board.
In many ways, it was a case of déjà vu – several of the bills heard originated from the 2017 session or are virtually identical to proposals that received public hearings in Senate Transportation.
Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28) is the prime sponsor of two of them, including SB 6301, requiring Sound Transit Board members to be elected through several local districts, rather than appointed from the three Puget Sound counties by their respective county executives.
“This bill, I think, is founded on a very basic democratic principle that leads back to the founding of our country, and that is you’re going to tax individuals, and this is an extraordinarily large amount of taxing authority we’ve given this body. They should be directly elected by those they represent and plan to tax.
“This was written in such a way that no one county…would have more than five districts entirely within that county,” O’Ban said. “The representatives elected by the people would be by their very nature representing the interest of Pierce and of Snohomish as well as King in the case where their district spans both counties.”
The governing change was supported by Mariya Frost, transportation director for the Washington Policy Center. She told panel members that “there’s very little incentives for board members in a select city to speak on behalf of or represent the needs of those who are not in their constituency, and therefore cannot unelect them for decisions they make on the Sound Transit Board.”
She added that the board has a history of voting “unanimously year after year after year on the annual budget. This is significant because while the board votes unanimous, the public is split almost down the middle.”
Other supporters include Victor Bishop, head of the Eastside Transportation Association. At the hearing, he cited the recent redistricting of the city of Yakima as an example of the need for decentralized voting authority. “Compared to the sound transit district, Yakima is a relatively small city. Sound Transit represents three million people.”
He added that although ST3 is a $54 billion package, the total amount managed by the regional transit agency with Sound Move and ST2 is around $92 billion.
Former chair and Ranking Member Curtis King (R-14) said: “Somewhere there’s got to be accountability (for Sound Transit) and I think that’s what this bill is about.”
However, panel members such as Majority Floor Leader Marko Liias (D-22) questioned the bill’s prohibition on local lawmakers, such as county or city councilmembers, from running for those seats. “It feels like one of the strengths of the current structure is you’ve got that nexus and liaison.”
O’Ban replied that when most voters elect city or county councilmembers, they’re focused on their actions there, not on the transit board. However, he added that “if making a change there would get your support for this bill, I would certainly be open to modification.”
Sharing Liias’ concerns was Abigail Doerr with the pro-ST3 Transportation Choices Coalition. She told panel members that “we believe it’s important to have locally elected representatives serving on the Sound Transit Board, where there is a nexus between planning for local government, regional government and having a regional transportation system that benefits us all.”
Similar lines between proponents and critics were drawn for the two ST3 MVET relief bills sponsored by O’Ban and Majority Assistant Floor Leader Patty Kuderer (D-48). Both would apply retroactively to last year’s car tab fees but use separate calculation methods for the difference between the 1990s depreciation schedule currently employed by Sound Transit for ST3’s MVET.
O’Ban’s SB 6303 would provide a refund to car owners based on the difference between the current MVET calculation and the vehicle’s valuation according to Kelley Blue Book. “For many it really is the difference between whether they can afford to operate their vehicles on a long-term basis. At least we have some agreement that something has to be done.
“We are not in any way impacting the property tax or the sales tax that ST3 also authorized by that vote,” he added. “We’re talking about 25 percent of the revenue.”
Kuderer described her bill, SB 5955, to colleagues as “an excellent starting place” that “respects the will of the voters to fund ST3 projects and also gives relief to the high cost of car tabs which has hit our constituents quite hard.”
However, both bills were opposed by Transportation Choices Coalition, the Northwest Progressive Institute, and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Opponents warned that reducing Sound Transit’s revenue stream could impact project timelines and delay their opening.
Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-25) responded: “The outrage that I hear from constituents about car tabs is huge. I hope that there’s some appreciation for that kind of outrage that’s out there. It seems to me that some kind of relief would build some goodwill with the citizens.”
Another Sound Transit-related bill that received a public hearing was SB 6475, sponsored by Chair Steve Hobbs (D-44). It would prevent the transit agency from imposing property taxes on less than a whole parcel of property; the provisions would apply retroactively for the new ST3 property tax.
None of the bills is scheduled for further action at this time.