Sound Transit funding splits lawmakers trying to cut car tab fees

With the legislative session set to end March 8, pressure is building for action.

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers agree they must provide some financial relief for those paying insufferably high car tab fees to Sound Transit.

But they are divided on whether they also must help the regional transit authority absorb the resulting blow of losing $780 million in future collections, money counted on to finance expansion plans approved by voters in 2016.

The flash point is an empty account that will fill with $518 million in the next 20 years from sales tax payments by Sound Transit to the state on its projects.

Lawmakers decided in 2015 any dollars that go into this account must be spent to “improve educational outcomes in early learning, K-12 and higher education” with a focus on youths who are low-income, homeless or in foster care. And they can only be spent within the boundaries of Sound Transit in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.

A bill awaiting action in the state Senate would instead let Sound Transit use as much of the money as it needs to carry out projects in the $54 billion expansion. Whatever it doesn’t need would then be delivered to the counties to dole out.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, came up with the language in concert with other Democratic senators because he’s convinced without the money Sound Transit won’t be able to deliver on everything it promised voters, including bringing light rail service to Everett by 2036.

“There was a vote by the people in Sound Transit area on all these projects and they expect the projects to be funded and delivered on time,” he said. “I found a way to do this but it’s been difficult to get this bill through the process.”

He’s encountered some resistance in his caucus. It’s an even chillier response in the House.

A bill passed in that chamber last month provides a modicum of relief for vehicle owners. It requires Sound Transit calculate car tab fees using a different depreciation table that more accurately values used vehicles relative to the open market.

It is only focused on vehicle owners.

“My priority is making sure the valuation is fixed and taxpayers are only paying the most current and accurate value of their car, and they get the $780 million back,” said Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, D-Federal Way, the prime sponsor.

“The Senate is looking at a range of things that are not part of our House bill,” he said. “I’ll wait to see what comes over from the Senate.”

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, is reportedly against tapping the account. When asked last week, he voiced strong support of the House approach.

Senate Bill 5955, like Pellicciotti’s bill, forces Sound Transit to ditch its old depreciation schedule and provide credits for vehicle owners if the new method shows they paid too much.

But senators think many of those in line for credits also voted for Sound Transit 3 to bring new Link light-rail service to Everett, Tacoma, Ballard, West Seattle, downtown Redmond, south Kirkland and Issaquah.

“I heard from my constituents,” said Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, prime sponsor of the Senate bill. “They want relief and they want these projects.”

Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, a Sound Transit critic, voted for the House bill because it helped vehicle owners. He won’t support siphoning funds to help the agency.

“They came to us and asked us for authority to raise $15 billion. They went out and got $54 billion,” he said. “They can afford this without taking away any money from the fund.”

At the center of the conversation is the Puget Sound Taxpayer Accountability Account. It was added late to the 2015 transportation package as part of a bipartisan deal clearing the way for Sound Transit to put its expansion plan in front of voters.

Money won’t start flowing into the account until 2019. Each year, portions will be distributed to Snohomish, King and Pierce counties. Over the course of roughly 20 years, King County will receive $318 million, Pierce County $111 million and Snohomish County $89 million.

Counties, which aren’t in the education business, must figure out where to send the money. Right now there are no rules so it could go to public, private or parochial schools or colleges. The only condition is the “educational services” occur within the Sound Transit boundaries.

The King County Council already has begun crafting a plan for spending its share. A similar effort is not yet under way in Snohomish or Pierce counties.

“I want to see Link light rail reach Lynnwood, Paine Field, and Everett as quickly as possible,” Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers wrote in an email. “ I support changing the Sound Transit car tax schedule as long as the budget and timelines remain intact.

“If the legislators decide to use the entire Puget Sound education account to keep the budget whole, then I will support their decision,” said Somers, who is also chairman of the Sound Transit Board of Directors. “I fully support having transportation dollars used for transportation projects.”

King County Executive Dow Constantine didn’t express an opinion in an email response to questions.

“We are watching closely,” he said. “Voters want light rail as fast as possible, and they want this depreciation schedule issue resolved. I am confident the Legislature can find the right balance.”

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier could not be reached for comment. He served in the Legislature in 2015 and supported the bill creating the account.

With the legislative session set to end March 8, pressure is building for action. Since Democrats hold the majority in both chambers, it will fall to them to resolve this.

“It’s very complicated. I’m comfortable we’re going to get something,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee. “You have to get the right bill. You have to get the right ideas. You have to get the right votes.”

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

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