Tax Repeal Referendum Casts Uncertainty on Washington State Transportation Work
Seattle and King County, Wash., are trying to block in court a recently approved ballot initiative that would blow a multi-hundred million dollar hole in state transportation funding plans.
Voters in Washington approved a referendum Nov. 5 repealing a key auto registration fee used by the state to fund transportation projects. State officials said that they were assessing all future projects not already under way to see what work might have to be postponed.
Jerry Vanderwood, chief lobbyist for the Associated General Contractors of Washington state, said in the week following the vote that much transportation work there is funded by a gas tax and other sources.
But the vote does create a hole in future funding pans. "What it all means is hard to say," said Vanderwood.
Gov. Jay Inslee (D) directed the state Dept. of Transportation to postpone work on capital expansion projects not yet underway. WashDOT said in a statement that the vote opened a funding gap in transportation accounts during the 2019–21 biennium estimated to be $451 million. The entire biennial budget is $6.7 billion.
Last week, Seattle and King County announced that they are suing in state court to block enactment of the ballot initiative. They claim it violates the state constitution.
Voters were in essence reversing a 2016 ballot vote—only in the Puget Sound area—on an initiative sponsored by the main Seattle-region transportation agency, SoundTransit. It authorized the agency to collect an excise tax, known as a car-tab, on the value of autos. The funds, paid only by those in the Puget Sound area, were to be used to pay for more regional rail service and more park-and-ride lots. But the method of determining and collecting the auto value tax was unpopular, and the ballot initiative approved by voters in 2016 more than tripled car-tab taxes in the Puget Sound region.
King County rejected the car tab cut handily, 59.47% to 40.53%, according to the Secretary of State.
Under the successful initiative, the car-tab would now be a flat rate of $30.
The ballot initiative was sponsored by Tim Eyman, who has been prolific in launching anti-tax initiatives in the state. Two major Seattle and Washington state employers, Amazon and Microsoft, contributed heavily to the campaign to defeat the initiative, known as I-976. But the yes votes prevailed, with 1.04 million votes. No votes were at 922,000.