Back in 1999, Initiative 695 slashed the state’s car tab fee to $30 and launched into overdrive the career of sponsor Tim Eyman. The courts overturned it, but the Legislature implemented the $30 fee and prompted state and local governments to piece together assorted funding sources, combined with cuts in services, to cover the lost revenue.
But over the years, the tab for the tabs has crept up, in part due to a controversial vehicle valuation that the Legislature has dithered in fixing. For most passenger vehicles, the annual base license fee ranges from $30 to $93; heavier vehicles can be charged a weight fee of $25 to $65. The extra fees help fund highway construction and Washington State Patrol operations.
In addition, a number of local governments —Yakima, Toppenish, Wapato, Grandview, Zillah and Mabton, among 62 statewide — have instituted $20 fees to set up public benefit districts that finance street projects. In Yakima, the money is going toward the revitalization of North First Street. In the Puget Sound region, voters have approved higher car tab fees to finance transit expansion.
So Eyman is back this year with what could be called “Son of 695.” It’s Initiative 976, an all-encompassing measure that would return the fee to $30, base vehicle valuation on the Kelley Blue Book and remove the authority of local governments to impose the car tab fee.
Eyman advocated the measure before the Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial Board in a discussion that is being aired on TVW, Washington state’s C-SPAN equivalent. Joel Graves of the Washington Roundtable spoke against it; the roundtable represents large businesses statewide. After hearing the arguments, this editorial board urges a resounding no vote on I-976.
Curiously, while touting a conservative line on taxation, Eyman’s measure undermines three tenets of conservative governance: local control, designating funds for specific purposes, and user fees in which those who use a service pay for it. His initiative also brushes aside the reality that due to inflation, $30 doesn’t buy what it did in 1999, especially in road construction and maintenance.
Eyman is correct that city councils, not the voters, have approved the $20 fees for road and sidewalk projects. But in our representative democracy, voters can hold the councilors accountable for votes such as a car tab increase, and campaign opponents are free to use it as an issue. We’re not seeing a lot of that in this year’s municipal elections. The initiative also would choke off funding of about $4 billion for projects statewide; opponents say approval would risk funding for the Union Gap Beltway connecting the southern part of the city with Interstate 82.
And while Eyman espouses the sanctity of voter approval of taxes, he seeks to employ the rest of the state into overturning the voters’ will in the three-county Sound Transit district — a legacy of his obsessive enmity toward trains and buses. If voters in the Puget Sound region want to raise their own taxes for Sound Transit — they have done so three times since 1996 — they can have at it. This is not our fight, nor is it the fight of the 36 counties not paying into that particular agency.
Eyman, who claims to be keeping government accountable and transparent, has problems with both. His troubles date back to 2002; most recently, he has filed for bankruptcy and twice been found in contempt of court for refusing to disclose information in a campaign finance lawsuit. While not an elected official, he has thrust himself into the political process; as with elected officials, voters deserve to know where he derives his backing.
Even if Eyman weren’t a flawed messenger, his is a flawed message. State and local transportation links serve an essential role in the Yakima Valley’s economic well-being, especially in moving goods from the Valley to Puget Sound ports. The $30 car tab fee, while saving most drivers hereabouts the equivalent of a gas-tank fill-up or two, would tie the hands of governments at all levels as they try to assure the mobility of people and goods. With transportation a top-of-mind issue in the state, Initiative 976 is exactly what we don’t need.