A state Senate committee will hold a work session to investigate whether Sound Transit misled legislators or the public in the approach to last fall’s vote on ST3.
Amid constituent uproar over increased car tabs and persistent lobbying from longtime Sound Transit opponents, a state Senate committee will hold an investigatory work session to review whether Sound Transit misled the Legislature or the public in the run-up to the vote on Sound Transit 3.
State Sens. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, and Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, had written to the Republican chairmen of the Senate Transportation Committee and the Law and Justice Committee, requesting hearings.
Sound Transit, Rossi and O’Ban wrote, “may have engaged in a systematic effort to confuse and misrepresent the impact and cost of the ST3 authorization.”
While the Transportation Committee demurred, state Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley and the chair of the Law and Justice Committee, said he would hold a work session on the topic. No date is scheduled for that session.
ST3, which passed in November with 54 percent of the vote, plans to bring a decades-long, $54 billion transit expansion to the Puget Sound region with 62 miles of new light rail as well as new bus and commuter train lines.
“There is no validity to any of the claims made by the senators,” said Geoff Patrick, a Sound Transit spokesman. Patrick noted that the agency sent every voter a detailed mailer that fully laid out the costs and expenditures of ST3, and prominently featured a tax calculator on its website showing what the initiative would cost individual voters.
Rossi and O’Ban, both longtime opponents of Sound Transit, have led the charge against the agency, which has come under fire as some taxpayers have been shocked by the increase in car-tab taxes this spring, after the passage of ST3.
While the bulk of that increase is due to the tax rate more than tripling — something that was well publicized in advance of the vote — Sound Transit also uses an inflated valuation table when calculating car-tab taxes, which leads to higher taxes for people with newer cars.
The valuation table is not new, but the higher tax rate has drawn attention to it, and both the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democrat-controlled House have passed bills that would make changes to the valuations system.
The Republican bill would not only change the valuation table, but also cut the tax rate in half, costing Sound Transit billions of dollars in revenue. The Democratic bill would give instant rebates to taxpayers to make up the difference between the inflated valuation table and a newer one, also in state law, which is more accurate but is not being used.
The Senate has also passed a bill that would result in wholesale changes to Sound Transit’s leadership board, although that bill stands little chance in the House.
Rossi and O’Ban allege that the 2015 bill the Legislature passed authorizing the ST3 ballot measure was unconstitutional because it used confusing language that led to the transit agency continuing to use the inflated valuation schedule, rather than the newer, more accurate one.
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O’Ban voted for the bill he now decries: a broad transportation funding measure. Rossi was not in the Legislature at the time.
The two senators also allege that Sound Transit may have been misleading in the length of time that it wanted taxing authorization. They note that a widely publicized $15 billion total tax-collection figure morphed into a longer, $28 billion in total taxes and a $54 billion total package.
The authorizing legislation passed by the Legislature, which O’Ban voted for, was open-ended in time frame, but the senators argue that Sound Transit misled them.
“The reason that legislators relied on Sound Transit’s representations in committee testimony was that the total authorization was $15 billion over a 16-year time period,” Rossi and O’Ban write. “Based upon that testimony, they had no reason to limit the time period of the authorization.” The two senators also allege that a Sound Transit survey on ST3 may have improperly used public funds for political purposes, something that was publicized at the time.