Light rail funding could be in trouble if car tab taxes decrease. Photo by Richard Eriksson/Flickr

Light rail funding could be in trouble if car tab taxes decrease. Photo by Richard Eriksson/Flickr

Republican lawmakers call for further action on car tabs

Senate Democrat slams their efforts as “unthoughtful sledgehammers.”

On the heels of the state House approved bill to reduce car tab taxes, Sen. Steve O’Ban, R–University Place, and Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R–Mill Creek, called for steeper cuts and lambasted Democrats for not joining them.

Last week, the House passed a Democrat-sponsored bill that would change the way Sound Transit—a public transit authority in the central Puget Sound—estimates vehicle values when levying car tab taxes to pay for mass-transit projects.

The bill, HB 2201, was a response to constituent and lawmaker complaints that Sound Transit used an outdated valuation formula that inflated car values when calculating the tax.

Sound Transit and transit advocates have argued that the Democratic House bill will cost them $780 million in direct funding for projects over the next decade and potentially lengthen delivery timelines for infrastructure like Link light rail.

O’Ban and Harmsworth held a press conference Feb. 1 to let media know they don’t think that the Democrats’ bill will do enough.

“The Democratic option is just not going to cut it,” O’Ban said.

Rep. Harmsworth said his constituents are “outraged” about the increased car tab taxes, adding, “the agency is out of control.”

O’Ban, who is a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, sponsored three bills that aim to further crack down on Sound Transit.

One of them, SB 6303, would cut the car tab tax rate in the Sound Transit taxing district—an area that includes the most densely populated areas of King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties—by 55 percent and explicitly require that Sound Transit value cars by Kelly Blue Book standards.

Another, SB 6301, would mandate that direct elections be held for Sound Transit board members. Currently, the 18-member board consists of regional elected officials that are nominated by the county executives and approved by the county councils.

While both these bills have been heard in the Senate Transportation Committee, neither has been moved to an executive session for a vote to advance.

O’Ban’s third bill, SB 6465, would require that Sound Transit get voter approval if it needs more funding than it can collect under Sound Transit 3—a $54 billion transportation package that was passed by voters by a wide margin in 2016.

This bill, however, hasn’t received a hearing in committee.

“We need to move these bills forward and get real relief, real reductions for these car tabs, and have Sound Transit come back to us and be accountable to the people, this Legislature, for what they’re doing,” said Harmsworth.

In the House, Harmsworth is sponsoring HB 1958, a bill that would prevent Sound Transit from taxing property owners whose property is partially located within the taxing district boundaries. The bill has moved into the House Rules Committee.

In response to the press conference, the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Steve Hobbs, D–Lake Stevens, released a statement slamming O’Ban’s bills: “I agree with Sen. O’Ban, which is why I am working in a bipartisan way to provide real car tab relief while ensuring the transit projects people voted for are delivered,” he said. “But that’s where we differ. Sen. O’Ban’s bills are unthoughtful sledgehammers that don’t solve the problem, create new problems and do not meet the promise we made to voters.”

In his statement Hobbs noted that O’Ban voted for a 2015 transportation package that allowed Sound Transit to raise car tab taxes under the dated vehicle valuation formula, going on to call the press conference a “case of buyer’s remorse.”

Given that the Republicans are in the minority, O’Ban’s bills are unlikely to go anywhere—as the committee chair, Hobbs has ultimate discretion on whether the bills will be moved. The cutoff deadline to pass bills out of transportation committees is Feb. 6.

When asked whether the press conference was merely a publicity stunt, Rep. Harmsworth said, “If a stunt is giving back real money to the people of this state, then yes, it’s a stunt.”

This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

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