Phone lines and inboxes for Washington House Democrats like 43rd District Rep. Nicole Macri have been lighting up since the unanimous passage of Engrossed House Bill 2201 Wednesday night.
Sound Transit Proposition 1 for the Sound Transit 3 projects package was approved by voters within the boundary of the regional transit authority by 54.05 percent, with King County alone approving the transit funding measure by nearly 58 percent — 55.76 percent of Pierce County voters rejected Prop 1. Voters in state District 43, which includes First Hill, Capitol Hill and Madison Park, approved ST3 by nearly 78 percent.
Approval of ST3 came with a 0.8 percent motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) increase — from 0.3 percent to 1.1 percent — which has caused a number of motorists within the regional transit authority to see large spikes in the cost of renewing their car tabs.
The 1999 valuation schedule is what Sound Transit has been using in order to pay off its outstanding bond debt, the last maturity date for which is in 2028. The 2006 valuation schedule would cost motorists less for their car tabs based on how it calculates depreciation and only counts 85 percent of the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP), but the only way for Sound Transit to make the switch before 2028 is to pay off its outstanding debt, thus losing the 0.3 percent portion of the MVET, or roughly $6 billion in future revenue.
EHB 2201, which House Democrats passed unanimously on Wednesday, April 12, would require Sound Transit to continue using the 1999 MVET valuation, while reimbursing car owners the difference from what the 2006 MVET valuation would be, but only for the 0.8 percent increase that voters approved in 2016 and the Legislature authorized the year before that.
Macri told the Capitol Hill Times Thursday the bill avoids jeopardizing Sound Transit’s bond rating while also adding fairness for taxpayers.
“There are many many people in the region who felt that the car tab valuation was unfair, and I have come to the belief that it is unfair,” Macri said.
The freshman lawmaker said she campaigned for ST3, but she and other House Democrats needed to find a way to address the high cost of the car tabs while not gutting the regional transit authority, which she said has been the goal of her Republican counterparts in the House and Senate.
“Where I landed was the best thing to do was have a package that holds both Sound Transit and the Legislature accountable to delivering on the (ST3) package while addressing the taxpayer fairness issue,” she said, adding she could have opposed the bill. “I think it would put Sound Transit at greater risk.”
Transportation Choices advocacy director Abigail Doerr said her organization and other transit advocates have been in Olympia since the start of the session, reminding legislators that voters approved the ST3 package.
“We’re very open to changing these rules, as long as there are no significant changes to Sound Transit’s finances that would lead to a delay or changes in Sound Transit projects,” Doerr said, adding ST3 is a 25-year program. “I think that the bill last night is inconsistent with our request.”
The revenue loss for Sound Transit would be $780 million, however, that would effectively result in a $2.2 billion loss because the agency would not have the additional revenue for issuing more bonds.
“It’s a significant cut, but we also lose the ability to leverage those resources,” Doerr said, adding this is happening at a time when there is much uncertainty surrounding transportation funding at the federal level.
While transit advocates are upset the legislation passed by the House does not provide a method for filling the $780 million gap, Macri said it’s not clear yet if there will be a gap. That amount is a forecast over 10 years, she said, and Sound Transit has tools it could use to mitigate the risk of such a loss.
Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick tells the Capitol Hill Times the agency has not taken an official position on this legislation.
Macri said it’s unrealistic to attempt to backfill $780 million in ST3 funding, saying Republicans had attempted to hang amendments on the bill to roll back revenue streams, kill light rail station projects and prioritize parking lots over train stations.
“There is the political reality here in Olympia,” Macri said, “and what we have on the table is a bill where we can say the House Democrats are solving the taxpayer fairness issue and not putting Sound Transit 3 projects at risk, and to hold the line on that position.”
Attempts to reach House Speaker Frank Chopp, who also represents Washington’s 43rd District and was critical in negotiating the terms of EHB 2201, were unsuccessful Thursday.
Doerr said transit advocates saw close to 20 bills come up in the House and Senate to address ST3 funding. She said she understands the desire to address tax fairness, but there is also an expectation that the Legislature honor the will of the voters.
“It was not unexpected, but we are certainly disappointed with the outcome,” said Doerr, who lives in Capitol Hill, a precinct that approved ST3 by 92 percent.
Transportation Choices has suggested one way to improve EHB 2201 to provide more tax fairness would be to limit reimbursements to cars valued at or below $30,000.
The Legislature’s regular session ends Sunday, April 23, and Macri said it’s unclear at this time if a special session will be needed.
“We don’t even know if the senate is going to approve this (legislation),” Macri said. “It seems pretty unlikely.”
Local volunteer advocacy group Seattle Subway took to social media on Thursday, asking those upset with the EHB 2201 vote to call Gov. Jay Inslee’s office and request that he veto the legislation if it reaches his desk.
The Capitol Hill Times has also reached out to King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office, the executive having written the pro statement for ST3 during the 2016 general election. A staffer with Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson’s office said the Sound Transit board member would be out of the office until Monday, and could provide comments then.