Now that the state Supreme Court has rejected Tim Eyman’s latest assault on transportation funding, the Legislature must stop enabling Eyman’s racket.
The Legislature finally should answer the voters’ widespread discontent with Sound Transit’s car valuation schedule, which calculates registration fees on a basis far higher than a car’s market value.
A change to a more reasonable schedule would sacrifice some transit funding. But it also would reduce the opening for Eyman’s ham-handed initiatives to lay siege to badly needed infrastructure projects at the ballot box.
For more than two decades, the serial initiative promoter has exploited distaste for car-tab fees to persuade voters to defund transportation. Initiative 976, approved by voters in 2019 but unanimously struck down by the court Oct. 15, followed Initiative 695, struck down in 2000, and Initiative 776, partly invalidated in 2006. Eyman has already discussed trotting out his “$30 car tabs” mantra before voters yet again.
If he ever succeeds in finding a formulation that withstands judicial review, Washington’s transportation network — roads, bridges, trains, buses and ferries — stands to lose mightily.
That votes fall toward Eyman’s measures, repeatedly, despite his litany of personal foibles shows how deep the dislike for high car tabs runs in much of the state. It isn’t Eyman’s trustworthiness that makes these campaigns successful. He faces a court date for allegedly pocketing campaign money given to his deeply flawed initiatives and drew public ridicule after being caught on a store security camera wheeling away an office chair without paying for it. Just 6.4% of primary voters supported him for governor in August. It isn’t him.
The problem is that a fee structure that has broken the public trust must be mended. The state has many urgent transportation needs. And there is evidence that most of the state is realistic about the need for funding. In more than 60 rural and metropolitan jurisdictions across Washington, leaders made the difficult choice of adding local car-tab fees in Transportation Benefit Districts to build local projects. I-976 would have removed this autonomy unilaterally, and the court has rightly restored it.
Now it’s time to fix the problem surgically. This means a measured reaction, not a repeat of the 2000 decision by then-Gov. Gary Locke and the Legislature to pass cuts that did everything Eyman’s court-rejected I-695 promised. Lawmakers should recognize and respond to why 53% of the state approved the I-976 strike against infrastructure funding. A compromise to modify the depreciation schedule is an overdue calming step.
The method Sound Transit currently uses inflates the value of newer cars significantly: a one-year-old car is taxed at 95% of its original price — even though the average depreciated value after a year is close to 70%. The difference lasts for years of a car’s life. Sound Transit values a base-level 2017 Subaru Outback, for example, at about $21,300, 83% of its original $25,645 retail price, and requires a $234 car tab fee. The same car’s Kelley Blue Book value, in good condition, is about $15,700 — 61% of its original price — which would require a $173 car-tab fee.
I-976 passed by 118,998 votes statewide. More than 80% of that margin came from Pierce and Snohomish Counties, where many voters live with paying inflated Sound Transit car-tab fees on the fringes of the system’s reach. Those voters need to be heard out and their concerns defused before Eyman exploits the opening yet again.
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