With new license tab fees in the mail, I’m fielding a significant number of constituent questions about Sound Transit, particularly around passage of ST3. Here’s my attempt to clear up some of the most common ones.
Why didn’t I get to vote? Will I have to pay this tax?
By far the most common question, particularly for folks in my district is about the boundaries of the Regional Transit Authority (Sound Transit). The short answer is this… the west side of the Narrows is not in the RTA. The urban parts of the county east of the Narrows are in the RTA.
So, for folks who live on the peninsulas or in the northeastern/southeastern parts of Pierce County, you aren’t in the district. You won’t pay the new license tab fee or property tax. If you shop in the district, you’ll pay the new sales tax, but not if you shop outside of it or when you have a purchase delivered to your home.
Obviously those who have businesses or investment properties within the district but live outside, will still be impacted by these new taxes.
Pierce County didn’t vote for ST3, can we leave?
The short answer is no. Right after the vote we did ask the question and there’s a number of legal and practical considerations.
First, to the legal question. There is no mechanism in law for an area to drop out of the RTA. Counties had the decision to opt in or out when the state’s first Regional Transit Authority was formed in the 1990s. Further, ST1 and 2 bonds are still being paid. Washington’s Constitution prohibits any law from being passed which would interfere with the repayment of bonds. As a result, even if Pierce County had somehow withdrawn prior to the ST3 vote, it couldn’t dodge those obligations. Bonds have already been sold on ST3 so the whole district is legally obligated to them.
Now to the practical question. If you look again at the map above you will notice a number of cities served in the Sound Transit district. The bill introduced this session would leave that up to each of the cities and the counties representing unincorporated areas.
I can see a huge potential problem with this. Imagine if a city like Fife, which light rail must pass through to get to Tacoma, were to withdraw. We’d effectively be granting them a veto over the wishes of the rest of the district. I think that’s why the Legislature granted the responsibility to counties in their capacity as regional governments.
What’s up with the way Sound Transit calculates the value of my car?
This is an argument that dates back to the original passage of Tim Eyman’s I-695. In the old days license tabs were the State’s way of collecting personal property tax on cars. We’ve become so used to paying a flat fee that many forget it was once a very different tax.
Rather than determining a true fair market value for each vehicle, the State used a depreciation model that starts slow and picks up steam in later years. Of course, cars don’t really depreciate that way. Most lose value quickly and then level off. As a result, people with newish cars saw valuations far exceeding what they could actually sell it for.
You’d have to dig through the legislative record back in 1990, but I suspect the theory was to create a slightly more progressive tax structure. Washington notoriously has the nation’s most regressive tax code and it’s been that way for a long time. If you assume that people of means were the most likely to drive newer cars, then it was a way of distributing more of the tax burden to them.
Of course, that’s a bank shot. The more direct means would be adopting a less regressive tax code. But ST3 relying more on MVET has highlighted this issue once again. Now Senators Rossi and O’Ban are asking if it’s constitutional.
I can’t say what the Attorney General’s Opinion will be, or what a court might say, but Sound Transit isn’t doing something deceptive or illegal. In fact, it’s state law, so the complaint properly rests with the Legislature. But it’s also possible that the AG or a court could find that state statute in conflict with the constitution. Here’s a more complete explainer.
Did you support ST3?
No. The Council had no vote in it and I did not endorse the measure during the campaign. I also did not vote for it on the ballot because I don’t live in the district. When asked, I was happy to supply information, but that’s it. There were several reasons but it comes down to this.
- I was concerned by the fact that unlike the other counties, we haven’t passed the behavioral health tax or fully implemented Pierce Transit’s tax capacity, both of which I consider to be higher priorities. Turns out ST3 was the main reason we didn’t pass the behavioral health tax.
- While I do support many of the services Sound Transit provides like express bus and commuter rail, I wasn’t convinced that building the light rail “spine,” with light rail running from Pierce and Snohomish into Seattle, is the best transportation or economic development plan for Pierce County. I’d prefer building out a local network in urban Pierce County first. I brought this issue up before the proposal was approved, but didn’t find support from other local electeds. Political inertia is real and this has been the plan for 20 years.
- Since I don’t live in the district, but many of my constituents do, it didn’t feel appropriate to tell them whether or not they should vote to tax themselves. As it turns out, the portion of my district in the RTA was in favor of ST3.
Should we change the Sound Transit Board?
Washington has a long history of using federated boards for regional agencies. Sound Transit is another example. Here’s what state law currently says:
(1) The regional transit authority shall be governed by a board consisting of representatives appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the council or other legislative authority of each member county. Membership shall be based on population from that portion of each county which lies within the service area. Board members shall be appointed initially on the basis of one for each one hundred forty-five thousand population within the county. Such appointments shall be made following consultation with city and town jurisdictions within the service area. In addition, the secretary of transportation or the secretary’s designee shall serve as a member of the board and may have voting status with approval of a majority of the other members of the board. Only board members, not including alternates or designees, may cast votes.
Each member of the board, except the secretary of transportation or the secretary’s designee, shall be:
a. An elected official who serves on the legislative authority of a city or as mayor of a city within the boundaries of the authority;
b. On the legislative authority of the county, if fifty percent of the population of the legislative official’s district is within the authority boundaries; or
c. A county executive from a member county within the authority boundaries.
When making appointments, each county executive shall ensure that representation on the board includes an elected city official representing the largest city in each county and assures proportional representation from other cities, and representation from unincorporated areas of each county within the service area. At least one-half of all appointees from each county shall serve on the governing authority of a public transportation system.
While I understand the desire to have a more direct say in who sits on these boards, I’m not sure it will increase accountability. I’m sure there are others, but the only directly elected metro region government I can think of is the Portland Metro area. From what I’m told, the visibility of these electeds is not as high as city/county officials, which you’ll have to trust me, are already pretty obscure.
There’s an additional risk with direct elections. With large amounts of construction money sloshing around an agency like this, there will be a ton of contractors with an interest and deep pockets, ready to influence those elections. The chances of ST skeptics having evenly matched campaign treasuries are remote.