Lawsuit drives I-976 proposals

Lawsuit drives I-976 proposals
Two state senators have sponsored bills that would codify most of Initiative 976 into law. Photo: freepik.com

Three bills introduced in the state Senate would codify into law most of Initiative 976 approved by 53 percent of voters in November. Driving the proposals in part is an ongoing lawsuit against the $30 car tab initiative challenging its constitutionality.

Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28) told colleagues at a Feb. 4 public hearing of the Senate Transportation Committee that he expects the courts to rule against the initiative, adding that to do so would not negate voter sentiment.

“We owe it to the voters to finally demonstrate that we hear them, that we will deliver car tab tax relief,” he said.

Reducing the motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) has been a topic in the legislature since the passage of ST3 during the 2016 election created a new car tab tax to pay for transit and light rail projects using a vehicle appreciation schedule that was later found to be incorrect.

In the past three legislative sessions state lawmakers have introduced various bills lowering the MVET or providing a rebate program for low-income households, though none have managed to clear the legislature.

“Based on a lot of the feedback that I’ve gotten from constituents over the last few years, there’s a low level of trust is what I would say,” Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-25) said during the public hearing. “I think we have an opportunity going forward to rebuild that.”

However, O’Ban said that “any modest tax relief that the legislature may take up would not suffice. We predicted that if the legislature didn’t step up and show leadership, the people would take matters into their own hands…and that’s just what they did.”

O’Ban is the sponsor of SB 6245, which would adopt most of the provisions from I-976, save for the elimination of the .3 percent sales and use tax. Transportation Committee member Phil Fortunato (R-31) is sponsoring SB 6031 and SB 6350. SB 6301 would enact all of I-976, while SB 6350 would apply all but the elimination of the .3 percent sales tax, transportation benefit district fees and a local MVET tax for passenger ferry service. SB 6301 was not included in the Feb. 4 public hearing.

Fortunato said the legislature finds itself in a similar situation as the one two decades ago when Initiative 695 passed by 56 percent; like I-976, it repealed excise taxes and fees as well as capped car tabs at $30. It was later struck down as unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court, though Governor Gary Locke called a special legislative session and enacted its provisions into law.

Speaking in support of the bills was I-976 sponsor Tim Eyman, who said Sound Transit officials “are not intimidated by you, they are not intimidated by voters. They are completely unaccountable.”

Opponents included Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff who told the committee that reducing revenue would inevitably delay Sound Transit light rail and other transit projects. However, he admitted that “there is a credibility concern with motor vehicle excise taxes.”

Sound Transit Board Vice Chair and Everett City Councilmember Paul Roberts offered similar warnings. “If you take the funding elements out, then it’s the areas that I represent that are…put at the greatest risk for not getting the services that we’ve been waiting for far too long. I represent constituents too…I can tell you anecdotally what I’ve heard is that people are very unhappy with the amount that they’re paying for car tabs, but they also want the transit service, so I have to try to figure out a way to reconcile that.”

When asked by O’Ban what kind of car tab relief proposals they would support, Rogoff suggested a payment plan similar to a credit card balance, while Roberts said “we’d have to sit down to look at offsets, but certainly the first part is simply finding a way to make that assessment something other than a very large hit (to revenue).”

SB 6425 and SB 6350 are not scheduled for any further committee action.

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