VOTERS should weigh the regressive tax request embedded in King County Proposition 1 against history.
The pattern is clear. As in previous rounds of asking taxpayers for more money, Metro sees its shortfall as a revenue problem, rather than thoroughly confronting its well-documented unsustainably high operating costs.
Voters also should consider the near future when they face many other ballot requests, from parks to city transportation. Tax fatigue could jeopardize crucial investments such as public prekindergarten
When Washington voters in 1999 approved Initiative 695, it wiped away a vehicle excise tax that gave the King County Metro system about one-third of its revenues.
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In response, King County leaders asked voters for a 0.2 percent increase in the county sales tax “to preserve and improve our bus system,” promising 575,000 more hours of bus service, as the 2000 voter pamphlet read. Voters said yes. Over the next six years, they got only 203,000 hours of new bus service.
In 2006, King County leaders again asked for a 0.1 percent sales tax increase, to fund Rapid Ride expansion. Voters said yes. The promised expansion is behind schedule, and in spots is not the superfast service promised.
During this period, driver wages rose significantly, to the point that Metro had the third-highest-paid drivers in the country. In 2008, Metro attracted the scrutiny of the Municipal League of King County, which issued a damning report on the agency’s cost structure. In 2013, it issued a grumpy follow-up report, noting modest improvements but reiterating cost structure concerns.
In 2012, after sales-tax revenues crashed because of the Great Recession, Metro got a boost with a temporary $20 car-tab tax.
This year, King County leaders are back again. Metro faces a $75 million deficit when that car tab expires. This time, the request is breathtaking, for its size and for the regressive nature of the proposal. A $40 hike in car tabs and another 0.1 percent sales tax increase would yield an estimated $1.6 billion over 10 years. Three-fifths of it goes to Metro, the remainder, to roads, bike lanes and road diet programs.
Metro’s defenders cite recent cost-saving reforms in the 2010-2013 contract with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, including a wage freeze the first year and an overall 2.3 percent increase the second year.
In the private sector, that would be called a rational response to an economic crisis. In the public sector, those concessions are deemed justification for a breathtaking new revenue increase.
Though the Municipal League is supporting Proposition 1, it does so “reluctantly,” citing ongoing concerns with cost controls and efficiencies. It urges Metro to do better, including measuring itself against peers.
But: If voters approve Proposition 1, King County would have no incentive to do the hard work of bringing down labor costs that still saddle Metro with the fifth-highest driver costs in the country, behind only Boston, Santa Cruz, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
If voters turn down Proposition 1, King County threatens a round of devastating bus-service cuts, many on popular routes including those carrying students to college. County and Metro leadership should not let that happen.
The threat ignores other options, including further fare increases and ever tighter control of administrative costs and capital expenses.
King County has been negotiating with the drivers union for nine months. Talks are now in mediation. Both sides could earn voters’ trust with quick resolution of a contract that further drops costs.
Saying no to Proposition 1 is not a message that transit does not matter. It does. The region, particularly job-dense downtown Seattle, needs reliable bus service. Nor should a no vote be read in Olympia as a sign the state Legislature does not need to pass a transportation package that includes less regressive transit tax options. It does.
Vote no on Proposition 1, and send King County government a message that Metro has more work to do on righting its cost structure before asking voters for more revenue.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).