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Old tensions boil over in I-976 vote

When the first round of election results were released on Tuesday evening, Senator Phil Fortunato was not surprised at what he saw. In a conversation with me on Wednesday afternoon, shortly before a second round of results were released showing Initiative 976 ahead by a ten point margin with nearly 1.1 million votes counted, Fortunato underscored his lack of surprise.

“I was planning on having a banner made up, it would have said ‘Thank you Sound Transit’.”

It is the belief of Fortunato and other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that the passage of I-976  was made possible — despite grave warnings about potential cuts to long awaited transit projects, as well as the initiative’s notoriously polarizing sponsor — due to the unwillingness of Sound Transit to make concessions on car-tab fees.

“They’re just downright obnoxious people trying to milk every single penny they can out of [car-tab fees],” Fortunato sniped.

I-976 would cap state car-tab fees at $30, down from roughly $43, plus additional fees. The initiative is rooted in a longstanding and contentious public debate, as The Seattle Times reported, “the debate over car-tab fees has raged in the Puget Sound area since an increase to Sound Transit car-tab taxes took effect as part of the voter-approved $54 billion Sound Transit package to expand light rail throughout the region.”

Cities and towns across Washington state were swift in conveying their disappointment.

“Our cities, towns, and transit partners are already struggling to build and maintain adequate and safe transportation infrastructure. I-976 will severely increase the burden on mayors and councils. The result will be felt by residents of all cities and towns, large and small, urban and rural, east and west,” said Peter King, CE0, Association of Washington Cities (AWC).

There has been legislation proposed by both Democrats and Republicans aimed at addressing outrage over the car-tab fees. Even still, some blame lawmakers for failing to address Sound Transit’s Motor Vehicle Excise Tax. The tax was criticized due to its formula that inflated new cars’ value while not accounting for cars’ real market worth.  

Under the initiative, cars will be valued by Kelly Blue Book rather than the current formula.

As to be expected, the electoral divide between urban and rural counties was stark. All but three counties — King, Whatcom, and Jefferson — voted for I-976. The regional results bear a strong resemblance to last years midterm elections, which saw Washington voters reject a carbon tax initiative in all but two counties.

David Roberts, a reporter on energy and politics for Vox, lamented the result on twitter:

“People living in Washington’s rural & suburban areas don’t seem to realize that they are all entirely dependent on the wealth that Seattle generates, so they spite it at every opportunity.”

Fortunato also echoed the idea that regional and ideological differences pervade the question of what constitutes fair taxation.

When speaking with me, Fortunato recounted what he noticed observing a focus group with both liberal and conservative participants for the Road Usage Charge Pilot Program.

“The Prius People were more concerned about the impact of a mileage tax on lower income people…the guy in the pickup truck who was more conservative was saying one thing, and the guy with the Nissan Leaf electric car was concerned that he wasn’t paying enough.”

On Wednesday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes announced their intention to file a lawsuit to prevent I-976 from taking effect.

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