While the polls began closing on November 5th, many of Washington’s voters drove home with what may have been an ephemeral smile. Tim Eyman, a prolific individual in Washington politics, was up to bat yet again, after two decades of many unsuccessful attempts to shut the tax collector’s handbag. This time, however, the wind had changed, and it seemed the public would finally side with him in his quest to implement a flat $30 vehicle tab registration fee.
In November of 2016, the vehicle tab registration fee increased from 0.8% to 1.1% per $10,000 of the car’s estimated value, a move that angered many voters. This increase reflected Washington’s need for road maintenance, completing projects such as expansion of the Light Rail, and servicing the railways between Vancouver, Bellingham, and throughout rural Washington. With this latest initiative, Eyman would take billions of dollars out of the DOT’s budget over the next six years. It’s pass by voter majority on the 5th forestalled multiple projects with immediate effect.
In response, a suit set forth by the City of Seattle and King County effectively suspended the initiative when it reached Judge Marshall Ferguson of King County Superior Court. The basis of Ferguson’s ruling cited misleading, broad wording that voters may not have fully understood. As the state continues its efforts both to avoid an overhaul of its transportation budget and manage potential voter overpayment refunds should I-976 ultimately take effect, Eyman can be seen both defending his position and inciting an outcry over the judicial suppression of his first successful tax cut initiative in many years.
A logical first question one might pose is why, of the many initiatives sponsored by Eyman (such as 695, 722, 745, 747 and approximately twenty others) did I-976 finally sway Washington voters? A number of factors undoubtedly came into play, such as the aforementioned registration fee hike in 2016. However, if one takes a step back and looks at some of the arguments professed amid Eyman’s rhetoric, not all of them are baseless.
One key point is the method of determining car tab value employed by King County, a system that has been in use since the early 1990s, and one that has faced criticism in the past. Several alternatives have been proposed that, if adopted, would not be nearly as costly to the state budget as Eyman’s $30 flat fee, and would likely go some way towards appeasing voters who have grown tired of fee hikes that seem confusing, unpredictable, or abstract.
Another aspect worth discussion is the idea of political corporate sponsorship. Amazon contributed 5 million dollars to opposing Eyman’s initiative, only bested by Microsoft’s contribution of 6.5 million. The no coalition did lose, by a fairly close margin of six percent. While, in the main, such interest warrants intense skepticism, it is for now aligned with the interest of many Washingtonians who now are rethinking their choice.
Eyman has not been immune to criticisms, and maintains that the money to be replaced by slashing tab fees could easily come from the State’s emergency fund; however that is both optimistic and risky. Emergency funds are, after all, for emergencies. The funding he cites is intended, at least in part, as insurance against economic recession. Additionally, it is not large enough to replace the loss of funding proposed by I-976.
The bottom line is that King County Superior Court will have to decide whether or not to overturn Eyman’s initiative. It’s already on hold, pending a decision as to its constitutionality, and won’t take effect on December 5th. While its status, at the moment, is in legal limbo, there is a very real chance that it will be upheld. In a state that consistently features some of the lowest grades given by the American Society of Civil Engineers, this is cause for concern.
Coincidentally, in 2017 the ASCE observed that drivers were paying $656 annually as a result of poor road conditions. This score has increased from a D+, the lowest possible, to a C- in the 2019 report, which can be found in full here. While it may be said that King County has had obscure and, at times, inaccurate ways of placing fees, slashing their budget would have devastating consequences that no rainy day or emergency fund could easily cover, as Eyman imagines. And though one could make the argument that allowing corporate interests so much influence in Seattle politics sets a dangerous precedent, that, especially in this instance, is an expensive point to make, both for the driver and the State. In the long run, fees are sometimes hard to stomach, but the choice is a classic one: Either pay now, or pay much more later.
For those interested, an open letter addressed to state legislators can be found on the Action Network.