Anti-tax activist Tim Eyman wears a sweatshirt with stickers from his I-976 $30 car tabs initiative on it as he attends the Associated Press Legislative Preview at the Capitol in Olympia on Jan. 10. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press file)

Anti-tax activist Tim Eyman wears a sweatshirt with stickers from his I-976 $30 car tabs initiative on it as he attends the Associated Press Legislative Preview at the Capitol in Olympia on Jan. 10. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press file)

Car tab ballot measure would slash cost but hurt transportation

  • By Lisa Baumann The Associated Press
  • Wednesday, October 30, 2019 1:30am
  • Politics

By Lisa Baumann

The Associated Press

SEATTLE — An anti-tax activist is again bringing a $30 car-tab initiative to voters in Washington state that would cut a major source of funding for transportation projects across the state.

Sponsored by Tim Eyman, Initiative 976 would lower most taxes paid through annual vehicle registration to $30 and largely revoke the authority of state and local governments to add taxes and fees without voter approval.

The measure also would repeal taxes and fees already in place, potentially costing the state and local governments more than $4 billion in revenue over the next six years, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

In Seattle, an $80 car tab fee pays for, among other things, bus and light-rail passes for students and residents who live in public housing.

“What’s really frightening about this in particular is all the ways it would affect Washingtonians,” said Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, a spokeswoman for an opposition campaign that has raised over $4 million, mostly from businesses including Microsoft and Amazon as well as labor unions.

“It’s such a broad impact it’s hard to believe that it can fit into one initiative.”

Anna Zivarts, program director with Rooted in Rights, which is part of Disability Rights Washington, is concerned about exactly which programs will get cut. She has a vision impairment and she relies on public transit.

“Of course $30 car tabs are appealing,” she said. “But the anti-transit part of the anti-tax stance — it feels like an attack, like we don’t matter.”

Eyman says the November ballot measure is a chance for residents to tell government that they voted years ago for $30 car tabs and meant it.

The measure is also Eyman’s way of going after a specific car-tab fee hike collected by Sound Transit in the Puget Sound region. Voters approved the increase as part of a light-rail expansion package in 2016 for King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.

Eyman says Sound Transit duped the public because the agency uses a method of vehicle valuation that inflates some car values.

If Initiative 976 passes, the agency stands to lose about $328 million a year, or about 11 percent of its annual revenue, according to the state analysis. Sound Transit said it could lose about $13 billion more over 20 years because of higher borrowing costs and possible project delays.

State lawmakers have introduced bills aimed at changing the vehicle valuation formula in recent years but they’ve failed to gain support.

“If the Legislature had fixed it, I’m beyond certain that we’d never have collected enough signatures to get this on the ballot,” Eyman said. “People feel frustrated. This initiative is the only way that people can come up with a better system.”

A lawsuit filed by taxpayers may also determine the fate of the Sound Transit car tab fee. It awaits a decision from the Washington Supreme Court.

More than 60 cities use car-tab fees to pay for road construction, bus service and sidewalks. In addition, the state charges fees to help pay for a variety of programs including State Patrol traffic enforcement, highway maintenance, ferry operations and maintenance of county roads and bridges.

Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin said losing some $1.5 million a year in car tab money could result in roads that are less safe, public transit that is less reliable and an increase in congestion.

“This is being sold as a savings, but this is not a savings,” Franklin said at a debate about the initiative earlier this month.

Franklin, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and other government leaders have come out against the initiative and over a half-dozen city councils have passed resolutions against it.

The city of Olympia went a step further, sending a mailer urging people to vote no. The state Public Disclosure Commission is investigating because a spokeswoman said state law prohibits city councils from using public resources to promote or oppose measures. Eyman called the mailing “blatantly illegal.”

Eyman’s $30 car tab initiative first passed 20 years ago. It was struck down in court before being enacted by lawmakers. The fees have crept up in recent years as lawmakers allowed them and voters in some places approved them.

Eyman’s latest measure comes as he fights a slew of campaign finance legal woes.

He’s twice been held in contempt of court for refusing to cooperate with court rules in connection with a lawsuit filed against him by Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

A judge earlier this month ordered a for-profit signature-gathering firm and one of its officers to collectively pay more than $1 million for deceiving state residents by funneling their campaign donations to Eyman for his personal use.

Eyman didn’t comment on the lawsuit but said the role of an initiative sponsor is not to be respected and liked.

“I think the average voter thinks, ‘I don’t care about Tim Eyman. I don’t care if Lucifer is the sponsor if the measure is doing what I want it to do.’”

State Sen. Steve Hobbs, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said in Everett earlier this month, that if the measure passes, the Legislature will be forced into triage mode.

“We’ll have to do an analysis on what gets cut and what stays … and things will fall through the cracks,” he said.