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Lawmakers grill Sound Transit over car-tab fees, release of thousands of emails

Senator Steve O'Ban. (TVW)

The Senate Law and Justice Committee held its final investigatory hearing into whether Sound Transit misled the Legislature and voters about ST3, the $54 billion light-rail expansion approved by voters last year.

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The first hearing last week focused on the constitutionality of ST3 and whether Sound Transit misled lawmakers about the scope of it, specifically the older, more expensive, valuation system that was to be used to calculate car-tab fees. That valuation system led to a huge increase in fees for many who say they weren’t expecting it.

Sound Transit insists it was clear in the package the Legislature approved and sent to voters.

The most heated part of Thursday’s hearing was focused around the voter pamphlet Sound Transit sent to voters before the election detailing the cost of ST3. The pamphlet explained that vehicle owners were currently paying a tax of .3 percent per $10,000 of their vehicle’s assessed value and that that tax would increase by .8 percent per $10,000 of value if ST3 passed, for a total tax of 1.1 percent.

Senator Steve O’Ban, who called for investigatory hearings, explained his issue with the voter pamphlet at the hearing.

“That voter guide did not mention how Sound Transit was valuing the vehicle. I read that. I’m sure the average taxpayer read that and said, they’re valuing it based upon market value, the way I value my vehicle, not based upon a statutorily created schedule based on MSRP that was never even mentioned in the guide, and never even mentioned on Sound Transit’s own website.”

But Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick insists the voter guide was clear, even without the mention of the vehicle valuation system that would be used.

“All I could say is that the information was there. It was a part of the actual ballot title — the fact that the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax would go up — and then in the explanatory materials that were sent to every registered voter household, the information that was on the website. So, to the extent that was someone was looking at that issue it should have been pretty clear.”

Given the outcry from many voters after they got their car tab bills this year, Patrick was asked whether he thought ST3 would pass now if the vote were held today.

“Voters approved that measure by 100,000 votes. That is the authoritative word on this, anybody who says what would or would not happen today is engaging in speculation.”

Another big part of yesterday’s hearing focused on Sound Transit’s improper release of nearly 173,000 ORCA transit card holder email addresses to Mass Transit Now — the campaign promoting ST3.

The emails were released as part of a larger public records request by Mass Transit Now. The staffer who handled the request says she didn’t know the email addresses were exempt from the records request, which was for all the email addresses in Sound Transit’s database. Sound Transit says once the error was realized it contacted Mass Transit Now and informed them and asked that they delete those ORCA email addresses. The Public Disclosure Commission said it thought the agency had violated election laws by releasing the email addresses. But a week later it changed course and said while the release was improper, it was not a violation of election law because it was just a mistake made in the regular course of responding to a records request. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson agreed.

Still, lawmakers grilled Sound Transit at the hearing about how it happened and whether anyone was ever disciplined over the release of the email addresses. The short answer to that was, no.

O’Ban said after the hearing he was convinced that Sound Transit misled the Legislature and the voters about the financial impact of ST3 and that he wasn’t satisfied with the answers he got about the release of the ORCA email addresses.

But Democrats on the committee, including Senator David Frockt, said they saw nothing deceptive on the part of Sound Transit and insist the agency was clear to both the Legislature and the voters.

Lawmakers can take what they learned in the hearings and decide whether to refer to the state Attorney General or another prosecutor for more investigation.

Committee Chair Senator Mike Padden told the Daily Herald he’s not sure anything came out of the hearings that needs to be turned over to another authority. But he says an executive summary of the hearings will be written.

As for car tab relief, it’s expected to be an issue for the upcoming legislative session.

O’Ban says his first priority will be, “to get his bill [SB 5893] that would substantially cut the car tab tax, to get it moving and get it over to the House, and hope that enough political pressure has built on some of those House members that they want to support a real tax relief for voters.”

Fellow Law and Justice Committee member, Senator Frockt — who believes the ST3 measure was perfectly clear to voters and the Legislature — says he does anticipate the upcoming session will see some efforts to provide relief to taxpayers on car tabs.

However, “It’s got to be done in a way that makes sense, the Bonds have already been sold and you can’t simply renege on those bonds you have contracts that are out there, they have contract rights the bondholders and they’ve sold bonds on this,” he said. “So it’s not as simple as saying we’re just going to pull the rug out from this program, but there are some ways, some things we can do.”

Frockt says he would support something like a bill Representative Mike Pellicciotti introduced during the last session, that would return about $780 million dollars of car tab fees to taxpayers, and change the vehicle valuation system Sound Transit uses to something similar to Kelly Blue Book values. Unlike O’Ban’s bill, it would not limit cut the actual taxing rate of 1.1 percent.

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