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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Critics see I-976 as troubled road for county, state

Initiative's opponents say reducing car-tab tax to $30 would be bad for funding of transportation projects

By Jake Thomas, Columbian political reporter
Published: September 17, 2019, 8:24pm
3 Photos
Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, stresses how collaborative the Southwest Washington legislative delegation has been on the area's transportation challenges and how a ballot initiative could undo much of it.
Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, stresses how collaborative the Southwest Washington legislative delegation has been on the area's transportation challenges and how a ballot initiative could undo much of it. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

With ballots set to be mailed out next month, a group of local business, labor and elected leaders gathered on Tuesday morning to speak out against a voter initiative that they said would cut billions for needed transportation projects in Clark County and across the state.

In November, voters will consider Initiative 976, a measure backed by Tim Eyman, a prolific sponsor of ballot initiatives, that would reduce car-tab taxes across the state to $30.

The initiative is aimed at Sound Transit, a multi-county public transit agency that has relied on steep car-tab taxes to fund increased light rail and bus service. But if passed, it would eliminate about $2.3 billion in revenue for local governments and $1.9 billion for the state over the next six years, according to an Office of Financial Management analysis.

On Tuesday, local opponents of I-976 gathered in a conference room at WareHouse ’23 as part of a statewide effort to argue that the initiative would deprive the state of needed investments in roads, bridges and transit at a time of rapid growth. They further argued that less transportation funding would adversely affect public safety, the environment and transit services used by vulnerable populations.

“It’ll stall projects already committed around the state and delay getting to additional projects, and it’s a step backward in development,” said Identity Clark County President Ron Arp. “It strips local governments of dedicated funding tools for local transportation projects. By delaying critical maintenance, we are only kicking the can down that pothole-filled road.”

Eyman, when reached for comment, said that voters have passed similar measures in the past, and he said the way vehicle renewal fees are calculated is unfair.

Dismissing his opponents’ arguments as “threats” and “scare tactics,” Eyman said there is ample funding to cover infrastructure investments at a time of record revenue for the state. He said the initiative will also bring needed scrutiny to fees and taxes used for transportation funding.

“That’s our principle,” he said. “If you want more of our money, ask our permission.”

Local opposition

Speaking to about 20 people, state Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said the transportation packages passed by the Legislature have enjoyed bipartisan support from across the state.

“An initiative like this, that rolls back that hard work of people coming together to move forward, is disheartening,” she said.

The transportation budget passed earlier this year includes $35 million in funding toward a replacement of the Interstate 5 Bridge. Stonier said that the initiative could jeopardize a significant source of funding just as the bridge replacement project is being revived by officials in Washington and Oregon.

Currently, the basic vehicle-renewal fees in Washington total $38.75, according to a state Department of Licensing fact sheet. Additional fees are tacked on for heavier cars. Local transportation benefit districts, formed by municipalities and counties, can also add additional fees.

Among its other provisions, I-976 would base the taxes levied on vehicles using their Kelley Blue Book value rather than the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. It would also repeal fees imposed by local transportation benefit districts and require additional charges to be approved by voters.

According to materials presented at the meeting, I-976 would put $4 billion in state funding at risk over 10 years, which would affect transportation funding projects in Clark County, such as the widening of state Highway 14.

Other materials presented at the meeting said that 62 cities would lose $60 million annually for local transportation projects over the next 10 years if I-976 passes. Clark County’s four transportation benefit districts would lose out on $5.2 million annually if the initiative passes, according to materials presented.

Battle Ground, Ridgefield and Washougal all have transportation benefit districts that charge $20 license fees. Vancouver’s transportation benefit district charges $40 annually, generating $4.8 million and accounting for more than half the city’s street funding. Last month, Vancouver City Council unanimously passed a resolution against the initiative.

Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle pointed to how money raised by the district has been used to improve country roads into urban roads that have facilitated development. She also said money generated by the district has been used to leverage grants and keep up on maintenance projects.

“So as we’re looking at the opportunity for economic development, that’s where those funds are used,” she said.

Arp, of Identity Clark County, said that his group, which includes about 90 business leaders, voted unanimously to oppose I-976. He said its passage would create safety issues and a maintenance backlog. He said it would also mean fewer sidewalks, street lights and traffic management systems.

Steve Horenstein, a land-use lawyer who serves as the policy committee chair for the Columbia River Economic Development Council, said that I-976 would make it harder to develop land for manufacturing, office and industrial jobs because the state’s Growth Management Act requires transportation infrastructure to be built before development can occur.

Deken Letinich, assistant political and legislative director for Washington and North Idaho District Council of Laborers, said that I-976 would also mean fewer jobs.

“I can promise you that union or not, there are a ton of jobs in Southwest Washington reliant on transportation funding,” he said.

Eyman responds

Eyman said that he’s confident that the initiative will pass in November. After its passage, he said, legislators — like Stonier — can go to work making sure that their constituencies have adequate transportation funding, meaning that government spending will have to be justified.

He faulted lawmakers for not revising the formula used to calculate fees or providing an alternative ballot question, as permitted under the state’s initiative process.

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He said that a $30 renewal fee is fair because taxpayers are already paying sales and gas taxes. He also said that taxpayers have chaffed under what he called the “totally corrupt” way of calculating renewal fees based on a manufacturer’s suggested retail price rather than the lower Kelley Blue Book.

“Do you think it’s fair that a $10,000 car is being taxed like it is $20,000?” he said.

He said that if the initiative passes local governments can still go to voters with a sales tax increase.

Columbian political reporter