Politics & Government

Push to cut Sound Transit 3 car tab fees fails after as last-minute deal falls through

Sounder, a commuter train operated by Sound Transit between Lakewood and Seattle, rolls over Pacific Avenue in Tacoma, June 19, 2017.
Sounder, a commuter train operated by Sound Transit between Lakewood and Seattle, rolls over Pacific Avenue in Tacoma, June 19, 2017. News Tribune file photo

If you were waiting for state lawmakers to cut your car-tab fees in 2018, well, keep on waiting.

Despite pledging that relief for some drivers was a high priority this year, Democrats who control the Legislature failed to reconcile internal divisions in time for a tax cut to get House and Senate approval.

Lawmakers adjourned for the year late Thursday night, the end of their 60-day session. That means the car-tab fees which spiked to help pay for the Sound Transit 3 construction package — and inflated for some based on how the agency values vehicles — will stay the same.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” said state Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, a Federal Way Democrat who sponsored the main car-tab cut proposal for his party in the House.

So what exactly happened?

In the end, lawmakers split into camps that couldn’t find common ground during the heart of the session, and a last-minute compromise fell apart Thursday.

Much of the Legislature wanted to cut the fee for car tabs, but for months they couldn’t agree on how big of a cut they should approve and whether to help keep Sound Transit’s budget intact with other money to protect the light rail and rapid-transit projects approved by voters in 2016.

A group of Democrats rejected the idea of cutting car tabs altogether, saying they didn’t want to alter the $54 billion transit package and risk losing any transit projects.

While ST3 was approved overall by a majority of voters in its three-county taxing district, most in Pierce county voted against it. Overall, the ST3 taxing package is expected to raise about $28 billion in revenue through a combination of increased sales taxes, car-tab fees and property-tax hikes over the next 25 years.

State Rep. Judy Clibborn, a Mercer Island Democrat who chairs the House Transportation Committee, told reporters that Democrats did reach a last-minute compromise for a modest cut to car-tab fees late Thursday night.

But with just hours left before session was scheduled to end at midnight, Clibborn said House Republicans were set to prolong debate past the deadline, essentially filibustering the deal into oblivion.

“We heard they were going to talk it to death,” Clibborn said.

Many in the House GOP wanted a greater cut to car tabs.

Rep. J.T. Wilcox, a Yelm Republican elected as House Minority Leader on Thursday, said he didn’t threaten a filibuster, but said his colleagues were set to propose “a bunch of amendments” to the bill.

Debate on those could have taken hours.

“We’ve always been in favor of real reform, not something tiny and symbolic,” he said.

The push to cut car tabs was sparked by uproar over how Sound Transit values vehicles to raise money for ST3 projects.

Their current method uses a formula from the 1990s to estimate vehicle values. It often overestimates a vehicle’s worth during the first 10 years of its life, leading to inflated fees for some.

Some legislators thought Sound Transit would use a more accurate valuation schedule approved by the Legislature in 2006, but Sound Transit intends to use the older method through 2028 when bonds from previous transit projects are retired.

The Democratic plan for car-tab cuts would have given refunds to people based on how much their tabs would have cost under the 2006 schedule. But party members fought over how to do so without blowing a hole in Sound Transit’s budget that could threaten ST3 light-rail and rapid-transit projects.

Sound Transit estimated the refunds would cost the agency roughly $780 million that eventually would be a $2.2 billion hit to their bottom line because they would have to borrow more money.

There were a number of proposals to replace the lost money from Senate Democrats, but their main one — raiding a $518 million fund created for education services for homeless youth and children in foster care — received too much political push back.

Clibborn said the compromise struck Thursday would not have raided that fund but would have implemented other strategies to limit the hit to Sound Transit’s bottom line.

Clibborn said it took some time to get legislators on board with new ideas in the measure and other tweaks to the bill, contributing to its demise.

“I would say the weight of all the changes that had to happen and the last-minuteness of the bill — it died of its own weight,” Clibborn said.

Wilcox said voters should expect the debate to resurface in 2019. House Republicans, he said, will once more be pushing for bigger cuts.

“We still want to get a lot more,” he said. “This tax is going to be around for decades and we’re going to be back next year working hard to do that.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein