Lawmakers ran out of time to vote on a car tab fee bill. (Herald file)

Lawmakers ran out of time to vote on a car tab fee bill. (Herald file)

Car tab relief effort crashes

There was too little time and Republicans had amendments they seemed intended to filibuster on.

OLYMPIA — Sound Transit car tabs won’t be getting cheaper any time soon.

Lawmakers adjourned Thursday without acting on a bill to trim them a little and protect Sound Transit from the resulting loss of revenue.

A fragile agreement reached among Democrats late Thursday never received a vote, a victim of too little time and partisan wrangling.

Republicans in the House had several amendments. When it seemed they intended to filibuster on them, Democratic leaders decided they could not get the bill acted on before the session ended.

“We ran out of time,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, the chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee who had been negotiating the agreement for several days. “This is the most difficult bill I’ve ever worked on.”

She thought Republicans would be amenable to standing down to get the bill through and give vehicle owners a small break. They didn’t and the retiring Clibborn held them partly responsible.

“This policy that would have helped working families throughout the region fell victim to partisan politics,” she said in a prepared statement. “We hope Republicans will show commitment in the future to car tab relief.”

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, who leads the Senate Transportation Committee, said he was disappointed, not at Republicans but at the protracted process. He had been trying to get agreement with House Democrats for days.

“We thought maybe, perhaps we had an agreement,” he said. “This is a democracy. I would like to take another stab at it next year.”

Republicans perceived things differently. After fighting for two sessions to repeal most of the voter-approved increase in the motor vehicle excise tax, they didn’t intend to surrender an opportunity to make the case on the final day.

“We’ve always been in favor of real reform, not something tiny and symbolic,” said newly chosen House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm.

Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, had authored one of the amendments.

“They wouldn’t let us run them,” he said. “We wanted that debate.”

Democrats only have themselves to blame for the outcome, he said.

“We could have run this bill out the first week of session,” Harmsworth said. “It should have been a no-brainer. But it turned into a hot potato. I’ll try again next year.”

The conflict is rooted in the financing package for Sound Transit 3, the $54 billion expansion that passed in November 2016 on the strength of support in Snohomish and King counties. It was rejected by voters in Pierce County.

It adds 62 miles of new Link light-rail line, including an extension to Everett Station by 2036, via the Paine Field industrial area.

To pay for the upgrades, the sales tax went up half a percent within the district. There’s also a new property tax assessment of 25 cents for each $1,000 of assessed valuation. And the tax rate for figuring car tab fees went from 0.3 percent to 1.1 percent, resulting in a near trebling of costs for some vehicle owners.

This year, the House and Senate each passed bills requiring the regional transit authority stop using a 1996 depreciation schedule in calculating its motor vehicle excise tax and switch to a schedule adopted by lawmakers in 2006. The newer grid better reflects a car’s actual value and will result in a little savings.

Sound Transit estimated it would collect $780 million less in car tab receipts as a result, money counted on as part of the expansion plan.

Hobbs pushed to keep Sound Transit financially whole to ensure projects in the plan stayed on track.

He proposed, and the Senate passed, a bill letting Sound Transit access funds of an account established to support educational services for young people who are low-income, homeless or in foster care in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

The account is empty now. But over the next quarter century, it is expected to fill with $518 million in future sales tax payments by Sound Transit. Under the bill, Sound Transit could decide to use that money for projects, or not.

But on March 3, the House Transportation Committee stripped out that provision making the bill pretty much identical to one passed by the House in January.

What Democrats cobbled together Thursday had several components to help Sound Transit without touching the education account.

First, any changes in the vehicle valuation schedule would not be applied retroactively to March 2017 when collections using the higher motor vehicle excise tax rate began. So Sound Transit got to keep what it received.

Second, starting in 2021, the state Department of Revenue was to defer collection of a fee it charges for administering Sound Transit’s portion of the local sales tax. The state would defer $225 million in charges though the money would eventually be repaid.

A third element is the state Department of Transportation would not charge Sound Transit for leasing right-of-way for construction of projects. In the past, Sound Transit has estimated this could save it up to $424 million in expenses.

If the bill had passed, it would have meant only moderate savings on many of the roughly 2.5 million registered vehicles subject to the tax.

Projected credits range from $13 on a 2009 Volkswagen Jetta to $53 for a 2016 Toyota Prius to $83 on a 2018 Tesla Model S, according to an analysis provided to the House Transportation Committee.

It also showed the owner of an “average” vehicle in terms of age and price in the taxing district would not have wound up with any savings.

On Friday, Sound Transit Chief Executive Officer Peter Rogoff pledged to keep talking with lawmakers. He iterated any decline in car tab revenues must be offset “with new revenues or cost reduction measures so we can complete voter-approved projects on schedule.”

That’s the position of Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin as well.

Otherwise, she told several Snohomish County lawmakers in an email March 5, the city would be better off with no bill.

“The voters were promised light rail to Everett by 2036 and it’s important to stay on that schedule,” said Bob Bolerjack, the city’s executive director for governmental affairs, on Friday. “The city of Everett is not opposed to moving to the new (depreciation) schedule but we will remain adamant that nothing draws out the schedule of projects being delivered to the city.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos.

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