GOP legislators say they thought they were authorizing $15 billion in taxes when they voted in 2015 to let Sound Transit ask voters to expand transit. How did that become $54 billion? Legislators put no expiration date on the taxes. Now they say they were misled.
Sound Transit, when it sought $15 billion for its mass-transit expansion, misled legislators before they voted in 2015 to give the agency permission to seek tax increases, Republican senators alleged in an investigatory hearing Tuesday.
In July 2015, the state Legislature passed a bipartisan transportation funding bill that allowed Sound Transit to raise the sales tax, car-tab taxes and property taxes to fund an expansion of light-rail and bus service throughout the Puget Sound region.
The Legislature passed the taxing authority, but it placed no restrictions on how long those taxes could be collected.
“The full $15 billion” referred to 16 years of new taxes. Sound Transit, after seeking extensive public input, ended up asking voters for 25 years of new taxes.
That’s why, when voters approved Sound Transit 3’s mass-transit expansions last year, they OK’d not $15 billion in taxes and spending, but $28 billion in new taxes. Combined with existing taxes, bonds and federal funding, the package totaled $54 billion.
Voters clearly knew the size of the package they were voting on. But, one year earlier, when the Legislature gave Sound Transit permission to go to voters, did legislators know what they were authorizing? Did Sound Transit mislead them?
That is the subject of an investigation by the Republican-controlled state Senate Law and Justice Committee, which held a session in the Kent City Council chambers on the issue Tuesday. Another committee meeting is scheduled for next week in Everett.
“Can you cite this committee any document that was presented to the Legislature that indicated Sound Transit was seeking more than $15 billion in taxing authority?” Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, asked several Sound Transit staff members.
“Isn’t it fair to say that Sound Transit really failed to accurately and clearly explain the scope of the taxing authority they were seeking from the Legislature?” he asked.
O’Ban, along with Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, both longtime foes of Sound Transit, requested the investigation this past spring.
The Legislature doesn’t have the power to criminally charge anyone as a result of the investigation, but it could potentially hand its findings to the state attorney general or another prosecutor for further investigation, or use its conclusions to influence future legislation.
O’Ban, who voted in 2015 to allow Sound Transit to seek the tax increases, says he and other legislators were misled, and he cited similar sentiments from legislators of both parties.
Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, responded, in essence, that it’s on the Legislature to understand what it’s voting on. “The Legislature is presumed to know what it’s doing,” Pedersen said, “and we authorized a set of taxes, I think, without any expiration date on them.”
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Republicans also contend Sound Transit misled the Legislature, and voters, in the way it calculates car-tab taxes. Sound Transit uses a longstanding formula that it inherited from the Legislature that leads to car valuations higher than Blue Book values, and thus higher taxes, for owners of cars less than 10 years old.
The inflated chart dates back to the 1990s and was replaced by a more modest chart in 2006. But nobody uses the 2006 chart. Since Sound Transit had already sold bonds from the 1996 Sound Move initiative based on the old 1990s valuation schedule, it will continue to use it until the bonds are paid off in 2028.
O’Ban and Rossi argue that the section of the law passed in 2015 that says Sound Transit will continue to use the inflated valuation schedule is unconstitutional because it is confusing — the law refers to the section of state code with the higher valuation schedule, but it doesn’t spell out what that section says.
Read the section of the 2015 law, and you can see their point:
“Notwithstanding any other provision of this subsection or chapter 82.44 RCW, a motor vehicle excise tax imposed by a regional transit authority before or after July 15, 2015, must comply with chapter 82.44 RCW as it existed on January 1, 1996, until December 31st of the year in which the regional transit authority repays bond debt to which a motor vehicle excise tax was pledged before July 15, 2015,” the statue reads.
Shakespeare it is not.
But, as Democrats pointed out, confusing language or not, plenty of Republicans knew the inflated schedule was in the legislation they were voting on in 2015.
Their evidence: Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, proposed an amendment at the time to switch to the more recent, more accurate schedule. It was voted down by the Republican-controlled Senate.