Spokane Journal of Business

The Journal’s View: Though overturned, I-976 should be a cautionary tale

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The Washington state Supreme Court made the right call last week when it overturned Initiative 976, also known as the Bring Back Our $30 Car Tabs measure.

The court ruled the measure failed constitutional muster because it contained more than one subject, and the intent wasn’t expressed accurately in the title of the measure.

The Journal is on record in opposition to I-976 due largely to our concerns that it would hinder scheduled transportation work here.

Now, however, even though I-976 is overturned, legislators and transportation officials should examine sentiment behind voter approval of the measure.

While the King County Council appears to be celebrating most exuberantly, judging by councilmember statements praising the court ruling, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the measure had been approved by 53% of Washington state voters, including the majority of voters in 33 of the state’s 39 counties.

The ruling doesn’t make it much easier for state legislators working on transportation funding, which will be all the more challenging due to pandemic-related declines in other revenue sources. They should be asking themselves, however, why so many people voted in favor of I-976. Did transportation planners go too far in depending on vehicle taxes and fees for revenue? Were taxes and fees being used in ways the public didn’t want?

The measure seemed to be born of West Side frustration with a growing menu of vehicle fees and taxes, some of which were calculated through a formula many believe to be based on inflated vehicle values. Even more specifically, some of the language in the measure seemed to take aim at Sound Transit, which operates bus lines and commuter trains in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties.

Still, I-976 was popular in all Eastern Washington counties, with a supermajority voting in favor of it in many counties, including Spokane’s neighboring Pend Oreille, Stevens, and Lincoln counties.

But the measure originally intended to address perceived West Side problems put Eastern Washington transportation projects in jeopardy.

In Spokane County, where it received 54.3% voter approval, the measure locked up funding for Spokane’s Transportation Benefit District, which now is expected to have $3.6 million in unspent funds by year-end because the city didn’t spend from the fund in 2020 pending the court decision. Those funds, which come from a Council-approved $20 car tab fee, were intended to go toward residential street work and sidewalk repair.

The measure also temporarily held up scheduled work on the North Spokane Corridor, though funding for that comes primarily from gas taxes through the Connecting Washington 16-year transportation package, which earmarked $890 million for the project.

Sound Transit should take heed, as voters in Pierce and Snohomish counties within the Sound Transit service area favored I-976 with 66% and 58% approval, respectively. But the measure also should be taken as a cautionary note to other transportation agencies, such as Spokane Transit Authority, to seek funding in ways that don’t risk losing public confidence and respect of constituents in their service areas. One could argue that’s what happened with Sound Transit

While the court did make the right decision to overturn I-976, which disrupted some already approved and hard-fought projects, legislators and transportation policy makers shouldn’t ignore and forget voter sentiment as they work on transportation funding going forward.

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