A Sound Transit Link light rail train. (Atomic Taco via Wikimedia Commons)

A Sound Transit Link light rail train. (Atomic Taco via Wikimedia Commons)

Hearings fail to find Sound Transit duped lawmakers, voters

Editorial: A Senate panel’s hearings fall short of proving the transit agency misled anyone on ST3.

By The Herald Editorial Board

To listen to some Republicans in the Legislature tell it, lawmakers and voters were both duped by Sound Transit and its tax package request to complete ST3, the multi-billion-dollar and multi-decade project to extend the Link light rail system between Everett and Tacoma and points east.

At least that was the point GOP members of the Senate’s Law and Justice committee were attempting to make in questions to Sound Transit officials and employees during a hearing Thursday in Everett.

“I think they misled voters every bit as much as they misled the Legislature in getting its tax authority,” Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, vice chairman of the panel, told The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield after the meeting.

Thursday’s hearing, like one a week earlier in Kent, centered on three primary speculations:

That Sound Transit employees and officials colluded with Mass Transit Now!, a political action group promoting a yes vote on ST3, by releasing the email addresses of ORCA cardholders, contact information that shouldn’t have been released.

That Sound Transit wasn’t transparent about how taxpayers’ vehicles would be valued in an increase in the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, using an older depreciation schedule that inflated the values of vehicles.

And that Sound Transit obscured the $54 billion project’s total cost by emphasizing the tax package’s $15 billion revenue collection over 15 years, when Sound Transit sought the Legislature’s approval to take the request to voters.

Rather than straight-forward requests for information and context, most of Thursday’s questions were of the leading “wouldn’t you agree?” variety, a staple of such hearings that are more statement than question. Regardless, Sound Transit staff were able to clarify and restate information on all three issues.

Regarding the release of ORCA email addresses, Sound Transit’s employees admitted the addresses shouldn’t have been released in response to a public records request to Mass Transit Now! and attributed the mistake to “co-mingling” the ORCA email addresses, which were not subject to the state’s Public Records Act, with email records that were subject to the request. A fix is now in place to prevent such a release from happening again.

As to questions about whether Sound Transit employees knew who had requested the email addresses, it doesn’t matter. In responding to a public records request, the identity of the requester doesn’t play into whether records are released, only if the records themselves should be released to the public.

While the release of the email addresses was a mistake, one certainly caused by poor management of agency records, an independent investigation found no evidence of collusion between Sound Transit and the political groups promoting the ballot measure.

Regarding the car tab tax — one of three revenue sources for the tax package that included increases on sales tax and property tax within the Sound Transit taxing boundaries — questioning by O’Ban and committee chair Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, alleged that Sound Transit wasn’t transparent about how vehicles were valued. Both criticized use of an older depreciation schedule that resulted in costly vehicle tabs that taxpayers began receiving at the start of the year.

But testimony Thursday and earlier statements don’t show an intent to deceive lawmakers or voters. Sound Transit, on its website and in communications to media and the public used the same depreciation schedule — comparing apples to apples — to show what taxpayers were paying before approval of the tax package and what they could expect after.

Even so, the .8 percent increases, meaning an additional $80 for every $10,000 in value, resulted in sticker shock for some taxpayers with use of the older, but still allowed, depreciation schedule.

On the car tab tax, lawmakers opposed to the valuation method weren’t duped so much as they were dozing during the 2016 legislative session. Sen Doug Erickson, R-Ferndale, offered an amendment that would have swapped out the older depreciation schedule for a different one. But the amendment was rejected.

ST3 opponents have also tried to make something out of the difference between the $15 billion tax package authorization the Legislature approved, the $28 billion the same taxes will collect over the estimated 25-year term of the project and its total $54 billion cost, which includes other sources of funding, including federal grants.

O’Ban and Padden on Thursday, keyed often on the phrase “full $15 billion” that lawmakers and Sound Transit officials referred to in opposing a reduced package for $11 billion over the 15 years identified in the legislation.

Sound Transit and its supporters would have done themselves a favor by trying to anticipate the confusion. But lawmakers in particular should have understood that Sound Transit would be collecting revenue for the project beyond 15 years for a project that will take until 2036 — at the earliest — to reach Everett. Like a four-year budget projection, the 15 years was used to show what the trio of taxes would collect over a set time frame.

The information about the cost of the project — and an online calculator that allowed voters to estimate the tax increases — were readily available on Sound Transit’s website as well as in media coverage before the 2016 vote.

Separate from the Senate panel’s investigation, the state’s Public Disclosure Commission also looked at similar allegations and in a February report found no evidence to deceive or attempt to deceive legislators on the ST3 tax measure.

An executive summary based on the hearings is expected, but beyond legislation next session that will mirror bills from this year to swap out the depreciation schedule and change the makeup of Sound Transit’s board, don’t expect this to go much further. Padden told Cornfield he didn’t expect “anything to be referred to any other authority.”

And it’s not persuasive to claim that voters were duped. Voters don’t take lightly ballot measures that affect their taxes. Initiative promoter Tim Eyman has built a successful cottage industry around that tax-wary sentiment.

Wouldn’t you agree, senators?

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