For the third time in two decades, Washington state voters were favoring $30 car tabs with Initiative 976 comfortably ahead in Tuesday’s statewide election returns.
The measure marks the latest instance of voters weighing a bumper-sticker-friendly tax cut proposed by perennial initiative sponsor Tim Eyman, who spent the campaign season decrying “dishonest” taxes and greedy politicians.
About 56 percent of the vote favored I-976 — a lead that will be difficult for initiative opponents to overcome as more ballots are counted in the days ahead.
Eyman was vastly outspent by business- and labor-backed opponents, who warned that cutting most car-tab taxes and fees to $30 could devastate road and transit projects across the state.
But voters appeared unswayed by doomsday predictions, including those in parts of Puget Sound, where some vehicle owners pay higher car-tab taxes to fund light-rail construction.
While King County voters were rejecting the measure, with about 56% saying no, voters in Pierce and Snohomish counties were supporting I-976. In Pierce County, about 68% of voters backed the measure and in Snohomish about 62% were in favor.
Sound Transit has warned the initiative could cause the agency to delay or cut projects, though a legal fight is likely first. In total, state and local governments and agencies — including Sound Transit — could lose $4 billion over six years, according to state predictions. Sound Transit says it could lose much more in the long run due to higher borrowing costs.
Eyman called Tuesday’s results “tremendously positive.”
“Inconceivable that they’ll go against us,” said Eyman, who gathered in Bellevue with a small group of supporters and wore a T-shirt reading “PERSISTENCE NEVER GIVE UP!”
The longtime anti-tax activist is currently in the midst of a long-running campaign-finance lawsuit brought by the state attorney general.
The opposition campaign did not concede Tuesday. At the campaign’s election-night party, Alex Hudson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, guessed that half the ballots were cast this week.
“We know from past trends these votes are going to be more progressive,” she said.
In Washington state, vehicle owners pay car-tab fees that vary depending on where the vehicle is registered and, in some cases, the value of the car or truck.
The state charges vehicle owners flat car-tab fees starting at about $43, plus additional fees. Those fees help fund roads, ferries, transit service for people with disabilities, and other projects. Electric and hybrid vehicle owners pay other fees when they register their vehicles.
In many cities, vehicle owners pay an additional flat car-tab fee that helps fund local projects. And in the Sound Transit taxing district, vehicle owners pay another car-tab tax based on the value of the vehicle.
The debate over car-tab fees has raged in the Puget Sound area since an increase to Sound Transit car-tab taxes took effect as part of the voter-approved $54 billion Sound Transit package to expand light rail throughout the region.
Some drivers were outraged not only by the tax increase but by how those taxes were calculated. The transit agency relies on a formula that overvalues many vehicles compared to the commonly used Kelley Blue Book. State lawmakers for several years discussed changing the formula, but didn’t.
Gary Robinson, a Mercer Island voter who backed the measure, said he wasn’t particularly offended by his own car-tab costs but voted “yes” to send a message about the way transit taxes have been crafted.
Robinson said he doesn’t always vote for Eyman’s initiatives, “but on this one, I thought he got it right … Somebody has to find a way to hold Sound Transit and the Legislature accountable.”
I-976 will likely face legal challenges and set off months of debate among lawmakers about how to backfill cuts to transportation spending at the local and state level. House Transportation Committee Chairman Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, said Tuesday he was “committed to working toward the future, to make sure we have all the transportation resources that are necessary to move the economy in every part of the state.”
Of state funding cuts, the biggest hit is expected to an account that can pay for transit projects like service for people with disabilities.
Eyman touted more than $3 billion in state reserves as a way to backfill cuts, but most of that money is in the state’s rainy-day fund, which is meant for economic downturns and emergencies.
For local governments, I-976 would repeal the ability to impose car-tab fees for local transportation projects. About 60 cities use those fees, often for basic maintenance like pothole repair.
In Seattle, an $80 car-tab fee in part funds additional King County Metro bus service. Metro predicted bus service could be cut if the initiative passes.
Eyman has twice before led successful car-tab-cutting initiatives, only to have them fully or partially struck down in court later. After the first measure passed, lawmakers clamored to show voters they were listening and slashed car-tab fees despite the legal fight. Since then, they’ve reopened the door for higher fees.
Seattle Times staff reporters Mike Lindblom and Michelle Baruchman contributed to this story.