Last year’s legislative session ended with lawmakers yet again unable to agree on relief for Puget Sound drivers paying the new motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) as part of the $54 billion ST3 transportation package consisting of bus rapid transit (BRT) and light rail. Now, Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28), who represents Pierce County, has pre-filed several bills aimed at reforming the depreciation schedule used to determine the MVET as well as authorizing counties to nullify the ST3 taxes and requiring further voter approval if projects go too far overbudget.
A member of the Senate Transportation Committee, O’Ban was co-chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee during a 2017 investigation into Sound Transit’s release of Orca card holder information, the constitutionality of ST3’s ballot language and its relationship with certain transportation advocacy groups.
Among the recommendations made by O’Ban and then-chair Mike Padden (R-4) was to provide “substantial and meaningful” tax relief on MVET.
If passed, O’Bans new bills would do the following:
- (SB 5037) Require further voter approval of ST3’s costs go beyond $54 billion or “any additions or subtractions of projects or significant project scope when compared to the system plan are made”;
- (SB 5042) Revise the agency’s vehicle value calculation methods to use Kelley Blue Book or the National Automobile Dealers Association values; and
- (SB 5043) and (SB 5044) Allow voters within a county to nullify ST3’s taxes, which include a sales tax, property tax and MVET.
Sound Transit’s jurisdiction includes parts of King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.
O’Ban introduced four similar proposals during last year’s session, two of which received public hearings. However, none of them made it to the Senate floor for a vote. In 2017, he cosponsored a bill introduced by Pierce County lawmaker Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31) that would have also placed guardrails on Sound Transit’s ST3 spending.
Meanwhile, a Democrat-backed bill originally introduced in 2017 and revived last year would have provided retroactive credit for drivers who paid the MVET according to a 1990s depreciation schedule, which would have then been swapped out for a 2006 schedule. The bill managed to clear the Senate and then the House Transportation Committee, but stalled before reaching the House floor for a vote and was never approved. After the session ended, a class-action lawsuit was filed in June against Sound Transit and Washington state by seven plaintiffs over the car tab tax.
While O’Ban criticized the bill for providing “meager relief,” others were concerned it would affect project timelines. One of the bill’s controversial provisions would have allowed the transit agency to avoid paying a fee meant to support educational programs and low-income residents.
The legislative 2019 session begins Jan. 14.