Tim Eyman’s latest tax-cutting measure, Initiative 976, passed with 53% support statewide in the election last month, with majorities in all but six of the state’s 39 counties.
But most voters subject to the priciest car-tab taxes targeted by I-976 didn’t join the revolt.
Inside the Sound Transit taxing district, which covers parts of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, a majority rejected I-976, signaling a willingness to pay more to continue construction of light rail connecting Seattle to suburbs throughout the region.
The initiative also aims to roll back car-tab fees that cities, including Seattle, charge to help fund transportation projects.
The strongest opposition to the $30 car-tab initiative came in the Seattle area, where 76% of voters rejected the proposal, with opposition in some precincts topping 90%, a Seattle Times analysis of vote data shows.
The measure also was rejected by majorities in Eastside suburbs including Bellevue, Redmond, Mercer Island, Issaquah and Kirkland. That was in contrast with South King County cities, including Auburn, Kent and Federal Way, all of which had 60% or higher support for the initiative.
In all, 59.5% of King County voters opposed the initiative, which is now the subject of a court fight over whether it will ever take effect. But in Snohomish County, 58% backed I-976, and support was even higher in Pierce County, where nearly two-thirds of voters voted yes.
The divided result has left supporters and critics of Sound Transit’s taxes sparring to some extent over what conclusions to draw.
Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, a Republican who sits on the Sound Transit board, said voters in his county are frustrated with the rising car-tab costs. But the kicker was the revelation that the higher taxes are based on a formula that inflates some car values.
“That just sets people’s hair on fire. You’ve got to resolve this. It’s toxic,” he said.
Dammeier said politicians should heed the voters’ message, even if they don’t agree with it.
But King County Executive Dow Constantine, who is supporting a lawsuit to overturn I-976, said his key takeaway from the election is that most voters subject to the higher car tax showed they’re willing to accept it.
“The people of King County recognize the desperate need to build a high-capacity transit system, and, even with an imperfect funding source from the state, they are willing to tax themselves in order to build that system,” said Constantine, a Democrat and member of the Sound Transit board.
An analysis by Ben Anderstone, a consultant for the opposition campaign against I-976, shows the total “no” vote at about 54 percent within the Sound Transit district, where the “RTA tax” shows up annually on vehicle registration bills.
A 2016 tax increase raised the tax rate from $30 to $110 per $10,000 in vehicle value. That spurred controversy as some car and truck owners saw sudden increases of hundreds of dollars in their car tab renewals. The spike was due in part to the car-valuation schedule, approved by the Legislature, that sets vehicle values for purposes of the tax at up to 40% higher than Kelley Blue Book or market values.
In addition to opposing I-976, voters inside the Sound Transit district also backed the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 ballot measure in 2016 to add 62 miles of light rail and 37 stations by 2041, and also extend bus and commuter-rail lines.
The demonstration of support, at least in the urban core around Seattle, to massive transit expansion leaves Sound Transit supporters determined to push ahead, despite I-976’s passage statewide.
“It’s a false narrative to claim that the 976 vote represents public rejection of light-rail transit. It didn’t,” said Sandeep Kaushik, a political consultant for the No on I-976 campaign.
Dammeier said it makes sense that voters outside the Seattle core have opposed the transit taxes. “Many of the folks in Seattle and King County can see, touch and feel, and maybe even ride, some of those Sound Transit services,” he said.
But other clusters of voters outside that area “don’t feel they are benefiting yet, and they are paying the inflated rates,” he said.
Constantine agrees the car-tab tax and valuation schedule has long proven problematic with voters and said state lawmakers need to fix it.
“I have been asking the state Legislature since the day Sound Transit 3 passed to give us a better, more popular funding source to pay for this needed infrastructure,” he said.