Pierce County sends a message to Sound Transit with vote on the I-976 car-tab measure

Frustration in Pierce County with Sound Transit’s car-tab tax increase for light rail projects, particularly how vehicles are valued to pay it, led to a big margin of victory for Initiative 976 in Tuesday’s election, state Sen. Steve O’Ban said.

Three years ago, voters in the urban areas of King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties approved the $54 billion, 25-year South Transit 3 — the third in a series of transit packages — with 54 percent in favor. In addition to tripling the car-tab tax, the ballot measure included property and sales-tax increases.

Most Pierce County voters voted no, but it didn’t matter. A majority vote of the three counties was required, and ST3 carried in King and Snohomish.

Pierce County’s vote tally on I-976 mattered. The latest statewide results showed approval of the initiative by a 55-45 percent margin. In Pierce County, backers of the initiative prevailed 67.25 to 32.75 percent.

“You really have to view that as a repudiation of Sound Transit,” said O’Ban, the University Place Republican. “I don’t think there was the strong will to reduce car-tab taxes before ST3. It’s ST3 that is fueling this frustration with voters in (Pierce) County, Snohomish County and parts of King County.”

The initiative sponsored by anti-tax activist Tim Eyman caps annual state and local car tabs at $30. It also reduces or removes the authority of state and local governments to charge several motor vehicle taxes and fees that pay for transportation projects.

Voters in Snohomish County voted in favor of the initiative 62 percent to 38 percent, according to the latest vote count. In King County, I-976 was losing by a 57-44 margin.

O’Ban sponsored a bill this year that would have cut the Sound Transit portion of the car-tab fees by 55 percent. It also would have scrapped the transit agency’s use of an inflated valuation formula for vehicles.

The bill did not receive a vote in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“I-976 will have a much larger impact since it applies statewide and cuts all car-tab fees. This could have been avoided,” O’Ban said Wednesday.

The Sound Transit Board of Directors plans to meet Nov. 21 to begin the process of responding to I-976, said Redmond Mayor John Marchione, the board’s chairman.

“The Board will consider Sound Transit’s obligations to taxpayers who want their motor vehicle excise taxes reduced, as well as how to realize voters’ earlier direction to dramatically expand high capacity transit throughout the Puget Sound region,” Marchione said in a written statement.

Sound Transit has said I-976 puts at least $20 billion through 2041 at risk for light rail expansion, bus rapid transit and commuter rail in Pierce, King, and Snohomish counties. That consists of $6.9 billion in lower motor vehicle excise tax revenue and $13 billion in higher borrowing costs in part to replace those funds, an agency spokesman said.

Most of I-976 takes effect Dec. 5, but several provisions affecting Sound Transit kick in later.

Tuesday’s general election was the third time in 20 years that voters have approved a car-tab initiative led by Eyman. Courts twice struck down part or all of those initiatives. Four years after voters in 2002 repealed the state law authorizing locally-imposed car-tab taxes, the Supreme Court ruled that the repeal was unconstitutional as it related to Sound Transit because it would damage the transit agency’s contracts to borrow money through bond sales.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said Wednesday he has asked the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to prepare a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of I-976.

Steilacoom Mayor Ron Lucas, a former Sound Transit Board member, said he voted in favor of the initiative but anticipates it will be struck down.

“It probably goes to the Supreme Court and my opinion will be the Supreme Court will overturn it again, and we’ll stay where we are,” he said.

In 2016, Lucas and Mike Lonergan, the Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer, wrote an op-ed published by The News Tribune in opposition to Sound Transit 3. They wrote: “We will spend a fortune on light rail that most people cannot use, and still have dozens of roads and bridges that need major repairs or improvements but are not funded.”

On Wednesday, Lucas said the Legislature needs to revise the valuation schedule that Sound Transit uses to collect the car tab tax because it inflates the value of a new vehicle over its first 10 years compared to the Kelley Blue Book.

Lucas said he believes the bulk of Pierce County residents are not opposed to transit projects. He said many residents, however, feel they got “hoodwinked” by the valuation schedule and were looking for legislators to do something about it, but they didn’t.

In addition to O’Ban’s legislation, state Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, D-Federal Way, sponsored a measure this year to lower car-tab taxes and keep Sound Transit’s projects on schedule.

The House Transportation Committee did not vote on the bill after some legislators expressed concern in caucus that the state would not fully compensate the powerful transit agency for loss of revenue.

State Rep. Jake Fey, the Tacoma Democrat who is the committee’s chairman, said it’s “speculation” to say the outcome of I-976 would have been different if the Legislature had revised Sound Transit’s valuation schedule.

“I tried for the last three sessions to get something that would deal with the valuation schedule but would not cripple Sound Transit 3 in building out the system to Tacoma. We weren’t able to arrive at a solution,” he said.

Fey said it appeared the support for I-976 in Pierce County was an “anti-tax vote,” given the results of the advisory votes on taxes. Based on the statewide results, he said the effort to reject Eyman’s initiative likely failed because of low voter turn-out.

“We’re talking about a million people deciding this out of four million voters,” Fey said.

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James Drew covers the state Legislature and state government for McClatchy’s Washington papers: The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and The Tri-City Herald.