The first TV ad released by the campaign against Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976 didn’t mention car-tab taxes. Sound Transit — Eyman’s longtime target — wasn’t the subject either.
Instead, solemn music played over footage of the 2013 Skagit River bridge collapse and contentions that money for road safety is at risk. Later ads warned about fatal crashes and Seattle bus-service cuts.
The ads offer the first window into how opponents plan to take on Eyman, whose car-tab cutting initiatives have twice before passed on the statewide ballot. With nearly $2.6 million raised and less than two weeks until ballots hit voters’ mailboxes, I-976 opponents are rolling out a campaign focused on the measure’s wide-ranging funding cuts, which the state says could total $4 billion over six years.
Getting less play in opponents’ messaging are the billions of dollars Sound Transit could lose. The agency, which is unpopular among some voters — particularly outside Seattle — and uses a tax-calculation formula that overvalues many vehicles, is counting on those dollars to build light-rail projects still years away from completion.
While Eyman bets voters are sick of what he calls a “dishonest tax” and frequently lambastes the light-rail agency, his opponents are betting the public will be swayed more by other projects the initiative could cost them.
“This isn’t just about Sound Transit. It affects a lot of different things and people don’t always understand that,” said Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, a spokeswoman for the opposition campaign. “What we’re trying to do is educate voters on what they don’t know.”
The initiative would cap annual vehicle-license fees at $30 for vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less, offering a break for vehicle owners while cutting state and local transportation funds. It also would repeal local authority to charge car-tab taxes as part of taxing districts called transportation benefit districts.
More than 50 cities across the state use car-tab fees for the taxing districts to fund things like road paving, sidewalk construction and, in Seattle, additional bus service.
Eyman has for two decades pushed initiatives to reduce car-tab taxes. He is now battling a campaign-finance lawsuit brought by Attorney General Bob Ferguson in which Eyman has twice been held in contempt and faces a potential lifetime ban on directing the finances of political committees.
Initiatives to lower car-tab taxes have passed twice before but later been wholly or partially struck down in court.
Here’s what I-976 would do, according to the initiative and analyses by state agencies.
- Cap annual state and local vehicle license fees at $30 for vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less unless the fee is approved by voters.
- Lower state license fees for snowmobiles from $50 to $30, for commercial trailers from $34 to $30 and for electric vehicles from $150 to $30.
- Eliminate a .3% sales tax on vehicle purchases.
- Repeal local authority to impose car-tab taxes as part of transportation benefit districts. Districts could continue to collect sales and use taxes.
- Cut car-tab revenue to Sound Transit and direct the agency to defease —annul — refinance or retire bonds backed by car tabs. If Sound Transit is unable to defease, refinance or retire the bonds, the car-tab tax would remain in place in order to pay off the bonds, according to the state Attorney General’s Office and Office of Financial Management. Future car-tab taxes for Sound Transit would be reduced from $80 per $10,000 of vehicle value to $20 per $10,000 of vehicle value based on Kelley Blue Book.
Opponents’ ads focus on funding cuts, sometimes stretching the claim. The Skagit River bridge ad claims “976 threatens critical roads and transit projects across our state by eliminating $4 billion in state funding to fix our bridges, overpasses and tunnels that do not meet earthquake safety standards.”
The initiative would indeed eliminate about $4 billion in total state and local funding, according to a state analysis, but not all of that is for earthquake-threatened infrastructure. That figure also includes money for Sound Transit and money raised through local transportation benefit district car-tab taxes.
Of nine state accounts that could lose money, seven could be used to fund earthquake-safety efforts, according to Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) spokeswoman Kris Rietmann Abrudan. Together, those accounts are expected to take a $1.8 billion hit over six years.
And although it provides dramatic images, the I-5 Skagit River bridge collapsed after being hit by an overheight truck, not because it was in poor condition, according to WSDOT. The bridge was in average condition, but its outdated design was considered “fracture-critical,” meaning it could fail if one beam was hit.
Another ad featuring a state trooper mentions fatal crashes and bridges and overpasses in poor condition. A third calls the measure “terrible for transit in Seattle,” citing King County Metro’s predicted cuts to bus service, paratransit and vanpools.
Eyman argues lawmakers could find ways to backfill the cuts or the state could once again give cities permission to charge car-tab taxes if they got the OK from voters. “Every prediction they make is assuming nothing changes,” Eyman said last month.
Opponents say the cuts would throw the entire state transportation budget into question. “What you’ll also see is a lot of unintended consequences and forced choices that are not really what voters want,” Clunies-Ross, the opposition campaign spokeswoman, said.
Dozens of elected officials, unions and interest groups have endorsed the opposition campaign. Top donors to the anti-I-976 campaign committee Keep Washington Rolling include Microsoft, Vulcan and Expedia.
The campaign’s ads are running from Bellingham to Lewis County and east to Wenatchee, Clunies-Ross said.
The campaign reported spending about $269,000 though the end of August, much of that for “opinion research,” though the campaign declined to release any polling. (Because of state reporting deadlines, the campaign’s reports on spending and fundraising lag. More details will be available later this month.)
An ongoing committee Eyman has used for several initiatives has raised about $62,000. Eyman said the committee plans to buy T-shirts and stickers.
Focusing on threats to projects other than Sound Transit could help the anti-976 campaign sway voters outside of Seattle.
“Not everyone sees the direct benefits of Sound Transit … What everyone does see every day is traffic, the crumbling of the various forms of current infrastructure and the lack of transit,” said Seattle political consultant Heather Weiner.
Allison Carney, a communications consultant based in Walla Walla, said statewide campaigns should focus on hyperlocal impacts and make sure materials are available in Spanish.
“There’s this power inequity between the west side and the east side [of the state] and something that brings it to Walla Walla or brings it to Kettle Falls or Mattawa is what’s going to get you the most success,” Carney said.
“People don’t really think about the quality of roads in terms of ‘I pay car tabs so the roads will be better,’ ” she said. “They’re just thinking ‘it’s so expensive.’ ”