Local governments wanting more transportation revenue made their case Monday to a state House committee, drawing pointed questions from minority Republicans about raising taxes without voter approval.
Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello said the city has a billion-dollar backlog of street needs and would benefit from being able to double citywide car-tab fees to $40.
The Legislature has given local officials authority to set the annual fees at up to $100 per vehicle with a public vote of support, but just $20 without such a vote.
"My concern right now is the people who can't pay $40 because they're barely being able to buy a tank of gas right now to get to work," Port Orchard Republican Rep. Jan Angel said.
Mello said a ballot measure might come later. "Once we have enough revenue coming in to begin to make progress on our backlog, our citizens will begin to see the improvements and we may be able to then put together a more comprehensive package of improvements ... using voter approval," he said.
Rep. Jake Fey, a Democrat and a former member of the Tacoma City Council, told lawmakers that raising property taxes isn't feasible as an alternative because of plummeting property values. He said the public didn't exactly rise up in protest last fall when the council used its existing taxing authority. "Nary a soul that I can remember testified against the application of the $20," Fey said.
In response, anti-tax activist Tim Eyman testified that "normal human beings" don't attend government hearings. Average people make their positions known during elections, he said, and they have voted repeatedly in favor of making it harder to raise taxes and against expensive car tabs.
"The voters find this a completely radioactive, unacceptable revenue source," Eyman said.
Kate Whiting of the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition agreed that most ordinary people don't show up at hearings like the one Monday — including most bus riders.
"I don't see many people that I see every day on the bus here," said Whiting, who said she takes public transportation between her home in Olympia and work in Seattle and elsewhere, and sees many poor or disabled riders. "People want more service, not less."
Mass transit is the intended beneficiary of several local-option proposals, including one by David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, that would let Pierce Transit increase sales taxes without a vote of the public — but only if it changes the way its board counts the votes of members to correspond with population.
Voters have twice rejected Pierce Transit's call for an extra three-tenths of a cent in sales tax. Sawyer said he is trying to avoid the costs of holding so many elections.
"They're elected representatives voted on by the people," said Sawyer of the board members, a collection of local-government officials.
Seemingly more likely to move forward is another measure that also aims to boost Pierce Transit but which doesn't remove voter approval.
The agency asked the Senate Transportation Committee at a hearing Monday to be allowed to carve out a subarea of up to 49 percent of its current area and ask voters in only that zone to raise sales taxes on themselves for bus service. House Democrats included that idea in a transportation tax plan they put forward last week.
The taxes could blunt the impact of Pierce Transit's planned 28 percent cuts in service — but only for a slice of the county.
A map developed by Pierce Transit and shown to lawmakers Monday showed one potential set of subarea boundaries that included parts of Tacoma, Fife, Lakewood, Parkland and Spanaway.
"This map is being drawn to make sure those areas (include) precincts that voted to support this in the last election," said Tacoma Democrat Jeannie Darneille, who showed fellow senators the map. "These are people that have voted for this already."
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826
Copyright 2013 - The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)