Spokane Journal of Business

The Journal’s View: Cheap car tabs won’t help Spokane’s transportation system

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Initiative I-976, also known as the Bring Back Our $30 Car Tabs measure, should be rejected by voters in November.

The statewide measure, put forth by antitax activist Tim Eyman’s organization Permanent Offense, aims primarily to reduce or repeal revenue sources from vehicle registration fees and limit them to $30 for cars, light trucks, and motor homes.

But it’s not a forward-looking measure; rather, it puts already approved and hard-fought projects at risk.

According to the state budget office, the initiative would reduce state and local government transportation funding by $4 billion over the next six years.

That could unravel the $16 billion Connecting Washington 16-year transportation package, which earmarked $890 million for the North Spokane Corridor. In the scramble for scarce transportation funds, other entities across the state would likely take a swipe at those funds if I-976 were to pass.

I-976 wouldn’t affect just new and planned construction.

In Spokane, the measure would repeal an important funding source for local street maintenance, namely the citywide Transportation Benefit District. Formed under statutory authority by the City Council in 2011, the TBD imposes a local vehicle annual registration fee of $20, generating $2.6 million annually. Revenue generated by the TBD is used specifically for preservation, maintenance, and operational improvements in the six-year pavement maintenance and pedestrian programs.

Without such funding, the headway the city has made in recent years in reducing its backlog of projects and maintenance issues likely will reverse.

In addition to road and bridge projects, other items at risk around the state include local transportation and light rail expansion, State Patrol funding, Amtrak service improvements, and freight mobility projects, according to I-976 opposition group Keep Washington Rolling.

The Association of Washington Business says the initiative threatens investments critical to our state’s continued prosperity. AWB joins Opportunity Washington, a coalition of business, labor, civic, and environmental organizations, including Greater Spokane Incorporated, which oppose I-976.

If approved, the measure undoubtedly will end up back in court, where Eyman’s initiatives have had less success than they’ve had with voters.

In Eyman’s first attempt at setting vehicle registration fees at $30, which passed with 56% voter approval in 1999, the state Supreme Court determined the measure violated the state constitution because it included too many subjects. The court also ruled the measure, barring an amendment to the state constitution, couldn’t remove authority from the Legislature to set taxes and fees to pay for state services in the future.

Eyman’s second attempt at cutting vehicle taxes and fees, which passed with 51% of the vote in 2002, initially was upheld by the state Supreme Court, but the court later ruled that no legislation could override contract obligations for projects that were already bond funded.

I-976 likely will run into the same legal obstacles.

This measure simply isn’t worth the risk to projects already on the books. We’ve fought too long and hard for what Spokane and the rest of the state stands to gain from current transportation funding plans to backtrack now. Saving money on car registration fees won’t be worth it if we don’t have a good transportation system to get around on.

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