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Monday, October 2, 2023
Oct. 2, 2023

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Initiative 976: Cities stand to lose transportation dollars

Voters will decide fate of license tab fees with Nov. 5 ballot measure

By , Columbian staff reporter
4 Photos
Emily Gillingham, from left, of La Center, and Mitchell Stivers and Alexis Gillingham, both of Battle Ground, take an afternoon stroll together with Gillingham's kids and Stivers and Alexis Gillingham's new puppy along North Parkway Avenue in Battle Ground on Friday.
Emily Gillingham, from left, of La Center, and Mitchell Stivers and Alexis Gillingham, both of Battle Ground, take an afternoon stroll together with Gillingham's kids and Stivers and Alexis Gillingham's new puppy along North Parkway Avenue in Battle Ground on Friday. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

North Parkway Avenue between Main Street and Ornsdorff Boulevard in Battle Ground is looking spiffy after microsurfacing, which uses liquid asphalt and rock to extend roadway life.

Battle Ground was the first city in Clark County to use a provision in state law to form a transportation benefit district and collect an additional licensing fee on top of what the state charges.

Mike Herceg, Battle Ground’s public works director, said he hasn’t heard too many city residents rail against the extra $20 they pay for car tabs.

“But the people where we actually do the projects are happy that their roads are being maintained,” he said.

On Friday, Clark County elections will mail ballots for the Nov. 5 election that include Initiative 976, the latest measure from anti-tax activist Tim Eyman. If approved, the initiative would wipe out the $290,000 Battle Ground collects annually from its license fee.

I-976 would cap annual vehicle licensing fees at $30 for vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less and eliminate additional licensing fees collected by 61 cities in Washington. If the initiative passes, cities and counties could increase licensing fees with voter approval following I-976’s effective date.

I-976 also would repeal the state’s 0.3 percent motor vehicle sales tax, reduce fees for electric vehicles, revoke Sound Transit’s ability to impose a motor vehicle tax in the Puget Sound area, and specify that any motor vehicle tax must be based on Kelley Blue Book value.

An array of political, business, labor and environmental groups urge voters to reject I-976. Local groups opposing the initiative include the Columbia River Economic Development Council, Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, Identity Clark County, Southwest Washington Contractors Association and Vancouver City Council.

Opponents say Washington communities need the transportation revenue to reduce congestion, improve safety, boost transit and spur economic development and job creation.

They face a difficult battle given the populist appeal of $30 car tabs, a topic easy for voters to understand and something that affects most in their wallets.

Financial effects

If voters approve I-976, it would eliminate about $2.32 billion in revenue for local governments and $1.92 billion for the state over the next six years, according to the Washington Office of Financial Management.

Five of the state’s 10 most populous cities collect additional license fees: Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, Vancouver and Everett. Vancouver, Washington’s fourth-biggest city, is one of seven cities with $40 fees, the second highest fee in the state. Seattle has the highest, at $80.

Vancouver would lose $4.8 million annually that provides about 53 percent of city’s street funding.

Ridgefield and Washougal have $20 license fees, but those two cities started collecting revenue just a few months ago.

C-Tran also likely will be financially hurt if I-976 passes. Information presented to the transit agency’s board of directors last month indicates the initiative could cost C-Tran $16.11 million over four years, based on the current and previous biennium.

Scott Patterson’s C-Tran’s chief external affairs officer, said most of that money is awarded through competitive grant programs, which makes it difficult to project what the agency might or might not receive in future years.

C-Tran is discussing what it will do should I-976 pass, but final decisions likely would not be made until it knows how the Legislature would decide to split remaining revenue, he said.

Eyman confident

Washington voters previously approved $30 car tab initiatives, in 1999 and in 2002. In both cases, courts later struck down the initiatives as unconstitutional.

Eyman, the former watch salesman who has made a career from sponsoring anti-tax initiatives, uses the word “huge” to describe his confidence level as Washington prepares to vote.

“I have never been so confident that I have an initiative that is going to pass in all 39 counties,” he said. “Everyone is just spitting mad.”

Eyman said he frequently hears about the car licensing fees at county fairs and other gatherings.

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“You always have people who come up to me and say, ‘What happened to our $30 tabs?’ ” he said. “I call it tab creep. People feel that tab creep.”

Cities have enacted the additional licensing fees using “councilmanic” power, which is a fancy way of saying they do so without voter approval. Although that may rub some voters wrong, it’s in line with a representative form of government, where voters elect officials to make decisions on their behalf. And if they don’t like those decisions, including councilmanic ones, they vote them out at the next election.

“Totally valid argument, I totally get it,” Eyman said, adding that more than 99 percent of public policy decisions are made by elected officials.

“I think the best way to hold those guys accountable is to remind them that they don’t make 100 percent of them,” he said. “There are times they won’t fix every problem.”

The initiative process if “a release valve” when all else fails, Eyman said.

“If everything else doesn’t work, the voters have another way to fix the problem,” he said. “They had an entire legislative session to fix the problem, and they didn’t.”

Eyman said the state has more than enough budget surplus to backfill revenue losses should I-976 pass. He said opponents are using “threats, lies and scare tactics” to dissuade voters from approving a $30 car tab initiative for the third time in 20 years.

Road preservation

Many cities are using the money to collect through the additional license fees to preserve their roads.

Pavement preservation uses different types of seals to extend street life by reducing water penetrating asphalt. When roads are not preserved, they can deteriorate to the point where they need to be rebuilt, an expensive and disruptive process. Preserving pavements is a cost-effective strategy to safeguard the public’s huge investment in roads.

Herceg, Battle Ground’s public works director, said his city has twice used proceeds as matching funds to secure bigger state and federal grants.

Ridgefield and Washougal, which started collecting the car tab revenue this year, also uses the money for pavement preservation.

Steve Stuart, Ridgefield city manager, said the city’s pavements are in good shape, but they will need more attention as the community continues to grow.

“We had already ramped up our road preservation program from $40,000 in 2013, before I came here, to $175,000 this year,” Stuart said. “There is a lot of development revenue we are seeing from a fast-growing community, but that money cannot be used to maintain existing roads.”

David Scott, Washougal city manager, said his city’s proposed pavement management program for 2020 totals $906,800: $475,000 from real estate excise taxes, $261,800 from car tabs, and $170,00 from the city’s general fund.

“Over the last several years, we have engaged the community to find out what’s important,” he said. “We found taking care of our streets and our pavement management program is one of the highest priorities here.”

So what will Washougal do if I-976 passes?

“We’ve had informal conversations about that, but we don’t have any specific council direction,” Scott replied. “The obvious contingency is to reduce expenditures in the pavement management program.”

“Otherwise we would have to identify something we would not do in the general fund,” he added. “Our general fund is very tight. So I can’t imagine we would be looking to cut some other general fund program.”

Vancouver Public Works declined to provide someone to be interviewed for this story because state law prohibits the “use of any of the facilities of a public office or agency, directly or indirectly” to promote or oppose a ballot measure.

Instead, the department directed inquiries to an online fact sheet about I-976 and the city’s webpage about its transportation benefit district.

The fact sheet provides a breakdown for how Vancouver will use the $4.8 million it collects from its license fee this year:

• Southeast First Street project, $1 million.

• Local match for transportation grants, $2 million.

• Pavement management, $1 million.

• Multimodal transportation safety and accessibility, $500,000.

• Traffic signal and lighting, $200,000.

• Neighborhood traffic calming and safety improvements, $100,000.

Columbian staff reporter