Car Tabs Was Not a GOP Cudgel: Democrats Dominated in Sound Transit Taxing District

Light rail car at Angel Lake Station. (Photo by Stephen Fesler)

Ultimately, Washington State Democrats did not pass a bill lowering car tab valuations last session despite Republicans and drive-time conservative radio hosts driving a lot of uproar about it. Some predicted this would spell doom for suburban Democrats. That didn’t happen in the midterms. Instead, Democrats were on the offensive gaining seating and losing exactly none in the Sound Transit Taxing District.

In fact, State Sen. Maralyn Chase lost her seat to fellow Democrat Jesse Salomon in LD32 likely in part due to her vote to take a big bite–perhaps as large as $2.1 billion–out of Sound Transit’s budget via the senate’s car tab bill.

The justification for Democrats pushing a car tab bill in the first place was to defend suburban Democrats from angry constituents and calm future backlash. Democratic leadership said as much in defending why they brought up the bill despite Democratic control of both chambers. This was about winning the next transit measure, Democratic State Sen. Strom Peterson wrote in our questionnaire.

Nonetheless, after midterms, the only Sound Transit Taxing District seats that Republicans will be representing are in LD25 and LD31, deep red areas of Pierce County. Many Republicans ran on a $30 car tab slate, taking their cues from Tim Eyman. It didn’t work (which is lucky since this could have blown a $8 billion hole in Sound Transit’s budget). The Sound Transit 3 ballot measure didn’t win Pierce County in the first place so this is not entirely a change of opinion on the matter. That leaves about 22 other Sound Transit taxpaying legislative districts from Everett to Orting where Democrats swept. This is simply a dominant performance far from a rebuke for car tabs.

Sound Transit Taxing District has five subareas for purposes of balancing investments. (Sound Transit)
Most, though not all, of the inset is in the Sound Transit Taxing District. (Washington State)

“Mark Schoesler understands well what Seattle transit advocates are slow to recognize; that the failure of #waleg Dems to reform car tabs is a win for his team. He gets a powerful stick to beat suburban Dems with this Fall, and a chance to play for higher stakes next session,” Seattle Transit Blog contributor Dan Ryan tweeted.

Some of the marquee pickups include Mona Das unseating State Sen. Joe Fain in the 47th and Claire Wilson taking down State Sen. Mark Miloscia in the 30th. This will have big repercussions for the balance of power in Olympia. If Pinky Vargas also manages to pull ahead of State Sen. Doug Ericksen, then that would take the Democratic senate advantage to 29-20, greatly building on the one-seat senate advantage they had heading into midterms.

In the House, Democrats will greatly expand on their two-seat advantage. In the Puget Sound Region, they have won pickups in legislative districts 5, 28, 44, 47, and potentially 26. Overall, a Democratic advantage as high as 60-38 isn’t out of the realm of the possibility.

With car tabs staying at the level passed in the ST3 package, suburban Democrats still thrived. It would be a mistake to bring up any bills that cut funds from Sound Transit. We need plans to speed light rail and rapid bus projects up, not slow them down. Democratic majorities should be put to more productive uses. Here are some ideas: more affordable housing investment via a capital gains taxes, climate action via a clean fuel standard, zoning reform to encourage transit-oriented development, and permission for Seattle to implement camera enforcement of transit lanes to keep buses during the “period of maximum contraint” and beyond.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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Eric Herde

The overall thrust of the article is accurate, but a few details are off. The 25th is not a deep red district, as evidenced by how close the races there were. The 2nd also includes parts of the ST district, and still has all Republicans. Also, the 28th still has a Republican Senator, although they only elected Democrats this year; he is not up until 2020.

Brian Nelson

Hey Doug, what happened to the very long and thorough counter argument that was posted in this comment section earlier in the week?

Doug Trumm

Looks like the moderator got it. As I understand, the gist of the argument was that the legislature can’t cut ST3 revenue sources like car tabs because they’re already bonding off of them and state constitution prevents that. This would be news to the legislature which spent the whole of last session trying to cut car tabs. If Mr. Buckle Up Son’s legal argument is correct, then the first people he should tell is the legislature.

I believe Mr. Buckle Up Son also called ST3 revenue sources regressive, which is a common refrain for just about every tax ever. I think taxing car tabs if one of the least regressive taxes since lower income folks are more likely to own older cars assessed much lower (or own no cars at all) while wealthier households will pay more for multiple high value cars. It also is very progressive in how it uses the revenue, building an affordable, efficient, sustainable transportation system for the Puget Sound Region and creating lots of middle class jobs in the process.