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Washington’s $30 car tab debacle could have been avoided entirely

Washington lawmakers had a chance to avoid the I-976 iceberg months ago. (File, MyNorthwest)

With Washington voters approving I-976’s $30 car tab measure, Seattle, Sound Transit, and the Washington State Department of Transportation are looking at massive, potentially catastrophic funding gaps. That being so, there’s a world where this could have been avoided entirely.

The real reason Washington voters approved $30 car tabs

During the last legislative session, Washington state lawmakers had three proposals in front of them that dealt with car tabs in some way, shape, or form.

The first, from Republican State Sen. Steve O’Ban, would have meted out car tab rates for Puget Sound drivers based on Kelley Blue Book value, effectively slashing prices in the region by over half. And while that would have had a similarly significant impact on Sound Transit’s funding, it wouldn’t have affected state funds the way I-976 does.

“My bill would have cut the Sound Transit portion of the car-tab fees by 55 percent,” O’Ban said in an election night news release. “I-976 will have a much larger impact since it applies statewide and cuts all car-tab fees.”

As it stands right now, I-976 will slash $1.9 billion in state revenue over the next six years, with Gov. Jay Inslee directing WSDOT to postpone all upcoming projects.

“This could have been avoided,” O’Ban added.

The second proposal came from Democratic State Rep. Mike Pelliciotti, and was largely viewed at the time as a feasible compromise between O’Ban’s more dramatic plan, and existing, more expensive car tab rates. Pelliciotti’s bill would have lowered tab fees for cars newer than 10 years old, using a more accurate 2006 valuation schedule. This also would have applied regionally in Puget Sound, rather than statewide.

The third was from Democratic State Sen. Patty Kuderer, which would have allowed for similar changes to the valuation system specifically for low income drivers.

All three of these proposals died in committee in the state Legislature before ever getting to a full vote, with O’Ban issuing a timely “told you so” after the initial results for I-976 came in on election night.

“It was the legislature’s job to show leadership,” he stated. “I warned my colleagues in the legislature for three years that the voters would step up to lower the fees if the Legislature ignored them. And they have done exactly that.”

One of these proposals very likely could have helped Washington avoid at least some part of the iceberg I-976 represented for transportation funding.

I-976 fallout: Gov. Inslee postpones all upcoming WSDOT projects

O’Ban’s, and to a lesser extent Pelliciotti’s, competing bills both would have meant massive funding losses for Sound Transit. But at the very least, it would have occurred in a controlled environment through lawmaker-crafted legislation, rather than a ballot measure drafted by Washington’s most renown anti-tax advocate.

In a universe where the Legislature manages to judiciously reduce car tabs fees before November, perhaps voters feel far less tempted by the prospect of $30 car tabs on the ballot. Or maybe Sen. Kuderer’s proposal to at least provide relief for low income households would have been enough to sate drivers.

Regardless, we’ll never know what would have happened had lawmakers managed to get any one of these three bills out of committee. And if a court challenge fails to stop I-976 from taking effect, we’ll be feeling the consequences of that failure for years to come.

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