Sound Transit Relief Remains a Major Issue

Sound Transit Relief Remains a Major Issue

Sound Transit relief remains a major issue

Deceptive $54 billion ballot measure gives all of government a black eye


hen Sound Transit put its $54 billion ballot proposition before Central Puget Sound voters in 2016, none of them knew what was coming. Sound Transit misled lawmakers and the general public, concealed key facts from decision-makers and violated the state constitution in the process. Today motorists in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties are howling about new car-tab fees dramatically higher than they expected -- often in the hundreds of dollars. Surveys show that if the measure was run again, voters would reject it by a wide margin. And who can blame them?

Sound Transit’s misconduct runs counter to Washington’s tradition of good government and full transparency. It demands a legislative solution that will provide genuine relief to taxpayers.Yet urban Democrats so far have resisted.

An investigation by the Senate Law and Justice Committee revealed numerous examples of deceptive and improper tactics used by Sound Transit in promoting its ballot measure.

Asked for an inch, took a mile. In 2015, Sound Transit asked the Legislature for permission to go to the voters for as much as $15 billion in new taxes over 15 years. In testimony and other official communications with the Legislature, Sound Transit referred repeatedly to “the full authorization of $15 billion.” Yet the bill Sound Transit presented to the Legislature did not limit the amount that could be collected – it merely specified tax sources and tax rates. After the Legislature adjourned in 2016 and could not pass corrective legislation, Sound Transit went to the ballot with a much-larger 25-year program, utilizing bonds and other revenues – and its proposal ballooned to $54 billion. Lawmakers of both parties have said the Legislature would never have granted permission for a proposition that large, had Sound Transit been forthright about its intentions.

Concealed car-valuation schedule. Sound Transit failed to tell lawmakers that it planned to base license-tab taxes on a valuation schedule junked by the Legislature years ago after public protest. Frustration was so great that Washington voters actually repealed it twice (I-695 in 1999 and I-776 in 2002). The long-repealed schedule bases values on a percentage of the manufacturer’s original list price, and has no relation to actual market values – causing it to overstate car and truck values. The bill presented to the Legislature by Sound Transit implemented the old schedule with a convoluted reference to the long-repealed law, using legal language so obscure that its significance escaped lawmakers and the general public.

Violated state constitution. Article II, Section 37 of the constitution requires legislation to restate “at full length” any laws that are revised or amended – meaning that the vehicle valuation schedule should have been included in the bill. Had Sound Transit prepared its bill in a constitutional fashion, the problem would have been apparent to lawmakers and the general public. Washington courts have overturned previous ballot measures for precisely this reason. They have called this constitutional requirement a vital protection for voters that ensures full disclosure.

Participated in lobbying efforts. Internal documents reveal that Sound Transit worked closely with third-party transit-advocacy organizations to coordinate lobbying efforts and testimony before the Legislature. At the same time, it funneled thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to those organizations, calling the payments “membership dues.” Lobbying by public agencies is generally prohibited by state law, and their activities are restricted to providing public officials with information about how legislation may affect their agency.

Provided public resources to the ballot-measure campaign. Sound Transit improperly provided the email addresses of 172,000 transit passholders to the third-party campaign for the ballot measure, Mass Transit Now! These addresses were used for campaign mailings. The campaign’s request for the addresses should have set off alarm bells for Sound Transit managers, many of whom were contributors to the campaign and knew the parties involved. Yet not a single Sound Transit employee was disciplined for the breach.

Provided misleading information to voters. Sound Transit misled voters in its “Mass Transit Guide” and an “online tax calculator” posted on its website when it said car-tab taxes would be based on motor vehicle values. Voters could be expected to assume that meant marketplace values in the marketplace. Nowhere in its public-information efforts did Sound Transit disclose that it would be assigning artificially high valuations to motor vehicles. In addition, Sound Transit’s online tax calculator used figures from the previous year’s Regional Transit Authority tax, and results did not reflect the actual amount voters could expect to pay.

What the Legislature needs to do:

Last session Senate Republicans offered proposals that will bring immediate relief and long-term reform.

Senate Bill 5893 requires Sound Transit to use a valuation schedule based on actual market prices. Car-tab taxes would be cut, yet Sound Transit would still have all the money it needs, because its construction program set aside 20 percent for contingencies.

Senate Bill 5001 requires direct election of Sound Transit board members, rather than allowing them to be appointed by county executives and councils – an arrangement that encourages cronyism.

The hitch is that many urban Democrats are aligned with the pro-transit advocacy organizations that promoted the ballot measure. A competing proposal in the House offered only modest cuts to car-tab taxes, using another schedule that does not reflect market values, and it would have raised property taxes to compensate. Voters demand genuine relief, not false promises.