All Quiet on the Car Tab Front in the Washington Legislature

Several bills have been introduced, but none made it to a hearing.

One of the last spitball fights among lawmakers in the 2018 session erupted over how to provide a modicum of relief for payers of Sound Transit car tabs without knocking a long-term expansion of light-rail service off track. It ended with them doing nothing, then retreating to the corners of their respective chambers to presumably wad up for battle this year.

But it’s been quiet on the car tab front through the first month of the session. Several bills intended to give some degree of relief have been introduced but none has received a hearing. It’s almost as if the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate forgot what everyone was so mad about.

“We haven’t forgotten about it,” said Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. “We were close to having something at the end of the short session. I don’t think we’re blowing it off.”

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he plans a “Car Tab Day” to consider offerings of Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Both aren’t sure they’ve seen a bill yet capable of bridging the divide of last year. It’s a tricky deal.

Car tab fees surged within the transit authority boundaries in Snohomish, King, and Pierce counties after voters in 2016 nearly quadrupled the motor-vehicle excise-tax rate used to calculate the annual charge. That money is pivotal to financing the $54 billion expansion of the light-rail system. When the increases started showing up on registration renewals in 2017, sticker shock set in for many.

Lawmakers too. They learned with crystal clarity how they compounded the problem by allowing Sound Transit to continue using a 1990s-era depreciation schedule in its calculations that overvalues vehicles. Lawmakers adopted a newer one in 2006 that better reflects a car’s actual value, but do not require Sound Transit to use it until 2028.

Last session, most Puget Sound lawmakers in the House and Senate wanted to make the change sooner to save owners of roughly 2.5 million vehicles a collective $780 million. Majority Democrats in the Senate also demanded the loss of revenue to Sound Transit be offset because those dollars were counted on for extending Link light-rail service to places like Everett and Tacoma. But their House counterparts disagreed. They figured the transit agency’s concerns could be dealt with later. Hobbs and Fey are on the same page today. They want to be sure Sound Transit is kept whole. A potential solution may surface in the next few days.

Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, D-Federal Way, a driving force for his caucus on this issue, said he’ll introduce a bill that “fixes the car valuation and still allows light rail to stay on track.” He wouldn’t divulge the details but said it “will be close” to elements in an agreement cobbled together last year but never voted on.

Under that deal, no car tab fee savings would be retroactive, the state Department of Revenue would defer certain administration charges, and the Department of Transportation would not charge Sound Transit for leasing right-of-way for construction of projects. At the time, the savings would have added up to about $700 million.

Fey knew Pellicciotti is working on language. He made no predictions of its success. “In the next few weeks there very well could be something coming out of the House that is meaningful but that is yet to be seen,” he said.

If not, the spittle may fly once again.

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

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