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Many state lawmakers want to lower car tabs, but no agreement yet on how to do it

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The countdown is on to lower high car tabs.

Lawmakers have been working a lot on the issue after backlash from people angry over dramatic increases to their car tab bills.

The car tab fees went up for drivers in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties after passage of ST3 — the ballot measure voters approved last November to expand light rail in the Puget Sound region.

Inside the walls of the Capitol building, the buzz words are all about car tabs.

“Inflated car tab,” state Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Lake Stevens, said.

“Overpaying car tabs,” said Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, D-Federal Way.

“They don’t like that their car is overvalued,” Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, said.

“That rage is not going to dissipate,” said Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place.

The four lawmakers are some of the main players in attempts to lower high car tabs.

“This is a big problem and I do believe everyone wants to fix this,” Harmsworth said.

Harmsworth noted that some people who voted for light-rail expansion now have buyer’s remorse.

So now what lawmakers are trying to fix is a state law that allows Sound Transit to over value the worth of a car.

Right now, the cost for the little sticker on your license plate is calculated using the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) for a car. It’s a 1996 state formula resurrected by Democrats in 2015 to pay for light-rail expansion.

“That made sense to me at the time," said Liias, a main sponsor of that bill, "but what I’ve heard clearly from people is it doesn’t make sense to them. You know, I don’t think my judgment or my answers are perfect. I know that we make mistakes; hearing in retrospect, I would have don’t it differently.”

But what he does not regret is ST3. The $54 billion ballot measure that voters approved is to add more than 60 miles of light rail across the Puget Sound region, from Tacoma to Everett

“When 700,000 people said yes, it’s expensive, but traffic is even worse ... that’s what we need to respect,” Liias said.

So now the Democrats want to use a new formula to calculate the tabs.

“There will be money back in people’s pockets by the end of the year,” Pellicciotti said.

There is momentum behind Pellicciotti’s idea to use a different legislative creation. Pellicciotti says it gets close to a fair market value for a vehicle, thereby lowering tabs while keeping bonds at its current rates.

But Sen. O’Ban said the House bill is a failure.

“I am not going to accept failure,” O’Ban said.

Republicans are determined to use only fair market value for vehicles. But in addition to that, they want to cut Sound Transit’s tax rate by half.

“We actually reduce the rate by 55%, whereas the House bill is just a Band-Aid,” O’Ban said.

So if you are confused on what it all means, here is a breakdown:

Take, for example, a 2013 Honda Accord -- the current valuation would cost $187.

The Democratic proposal would lower that to $118.

The Republican proposal would come out to be $60 -- a savings of $127.

“If all they have is the modest relief provided by the House bill, I will guarantee you that taxpayer rage will only continue,” O’Ban said.

The Democrats say their way is the best balance between car tab relief and light rail.

“Make sure light rail projects aren’t delayed, that we continue to deliver what voters asked for,” Liias said.

But Republicans believe many voters probably now want a do-over.

“If people had a chance to re-vote, would go back and say, yeah, maybe not so much for this kind of money ,” Harmsworth said.

Lawmakers as of Tuesday night did not have an agreement, with only five days left before the regular legislative session is over for the year.