GOP legislators have targeted Sound Transit for an overhaul, but a bill to replace the agency’s leaders seems stalled in the House. A proposal to revise how the agency calculates car-tab fees, however, has bipartisan support.
Republicans in the Legislature are taking aim at Sound Transit with a smattering of bills that would overhaul or neuter the agency, but the one bill that has progressed the furthest seems stalled, while another proposal, which would mean less revenue for the agency, has some bipartisan backing.
As Sound Transit embarks on a decades-long project to add 62 miles of light rail to the Puget Sound region, the Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill last week that would revamp the agency’s leadership, likely resulting in all current board members being replaced in 2018.
That proposal appears dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled House, where Rep. Judy Clibborn, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, the bill’s next destination, says she has no interest in it.
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“I don’t know that we get a lot of efficiency by going down that road,” said Clibborn, D-Mercer Island. “I’m not real intrigued by that idea.”
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Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, likewise, is not gung-ho on reorganizing Sound Transit. “He’s confident the current board structure can get the job done,” said Tara Lee, an Inslee spokeswoman.
Such a change would more accurately reflect the market values of people’s cars, but would mean less revenue for Sound Transit, which is currently using an inflated valuation system it inherited from the Legislature.
On Monday, the Senate Transportation Committee will discuss Senate Bill 5851, which would change how Sound Transit calculates car values, as well as bills that would allow cities or counties to entirely opt out of paying taxes for Sound Transit 3, passed by voters last year.
“Every project that we build and operate has to be approved by the voters,” said Geoff Patrick, a Sound Transit spokesman. “That’s a very unusual level of direct voter control for mass transit and one that goes beyond many other regions of the country.”
Bill to revamp board
On Wednesday, Senate Republicans, with some Democratic support, passed Senate Bill 5001,which would require direct elections for the Sound Transit Board.
That would almost certainly result in a total change in Sound Transit’s leadership — in late 2018, the agency’s current 18-member board would be thrown out, replaced by 11 newly elected board members.
The bill would create 11 districts within Sound Transit’s boundaries, each of which would elect one nonpartisan board member in 2018. No one who holds any other public office could run for Sound Transit’s Board. Since all of Sound Transit’s current board members hold public office, they would have to drop those positions to remain on the board.
The bill also would allow no more than five of the 11 districts to be entirely within King County, which, with a population larger than Pierce and Snohomish counties combined, currently controls 10 of the 18 board spots.
The bill’s supporters argue that an agency responsible for managing and spending billions of dollars of public money should be directly accountable to voters.
All current Sound Transit Board members, except the state secretary of transportation, are elected officials. The three county executives sit on the board and appoint the rest of the members — city and county council members and mayors — who are then confirmed by their respective county councils.
The bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, called that setup “antithetical to our democratic traditions.
“We want an organization with taxing authority, and with the power to spend so much money, directly responsive to the people, the voters and the taxpayers,” O’Ban said in a floor speech.
But opponents, and Sound Transit, argue that the board is already accountable because it’s made up almost fully of elected officials — and that those officials have expertise and the ability to coordinate Sound Transit’s projects with local governments and communities.
“Everybody on the board is elected, so I think that the idea that we’re not accountable to voters is a bit misplaced,” said Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, the current chair of the Sound Transit Board. “It could be really disruptive to have a whole new board.”
Said Issaquah Mayor Fred Butler, another board member: “This is a solution that’s looking for a problem.”
New car-value formula
While the bill to revamp Sound Transit’s board has made more progress, it’s the push to change how the agency implements its car-tab tax that may have the brighter future.
Since 1990, the state has used an inflated formula for determining how much a car is worth when it comes to calculating car-tab taxes. While there is no longer a statewide car-tab tax based on a car’s value, Sound Transit still uses the state’s old formula for its car-tab tax, as it has done since its tax went into effect in the 1990s. That means more revenue for the agency to fund the expansion of light rail, commuter trains and buses throughout the region.
Because it has already sold bonds based on that formula, the state Supreme Court has ruled that it can’t be forced to adopt a more accurate one for old Sound Transit taxes.
But it could, conceivably, use a more accurate valuation formula for the car-tab tax increase that went into effect with the passage of ST3.
Republicans in both the House and the Senate have proposed bills to require Sound Transit to use data from the National Automobile Dealers Association or the Kelley Blue Book to assign values to cars.
“If you’re going to charge a tax on it, it should be based on its true vehicle value,” said Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, the sponsor of the House bill.
There is already a valuation formula in state law that is more accurate and looks a lot like average Blue Book values. The Legislature adopted it in 2006 — but because Sound Transit is the only agency that taxes based on a car’s value, and Sound Transit is locked into those older bonds until 2028, it is not currently being used.
Patrick, the Sound Transit spokesman, said the agency has been hearing from legislators concerned about the issue and that officials are looking at how, given their bond obligations, they could make changes to their car-tab collection process sooner.
“That review is happening,” Patrick said.
Clibborn said she’d like to move to that more accurate system of car values, provided that it’s not such a big hit to Sound Transit’s finances that it imperils the agency’s projects.
“It’s in the works, it’s not done, but it is something that might make people feel a little bit better” about car-tab fees, Clibborn said. “I think that makes more sense than trying to re-elect a board.”