Car tab relief? Bipartisan bill passes state Senate, but measure comes at a cost

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Nearly a year after higher car tab taxes took effect, drivers may finally be seeing some relief.

But relief comes at a cost.

Prices could drop

Late Wednesday night, the state Senate passed a bipartisan car tab relief bill, 30-14. The bill is headed to the state House, where Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, hopes it passes without amendment.

"It balances the will of the voters in terms of supporting the Sound Transit project," Kuderer said. "And also giving them relief from higher car tabs."

The bill establishes a market value adjustment program. Sound Transit has been using an outdated method to determine the value of vehicles, boosting the cost of car tabs. The bill would better align car valuation with the actual market, supporters argue.  I

It would also provide retroactive credit to people who have paid for their tabs before Sept. 1, 2018.

The price reduction in car tab taxes depends on the car, said Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn. For example, an owner of a 2010 Nissan Altima would save about $30, while the owner of a 2015 Acura RLX could save $140.

Longtime coming?

Voters approved Sound Transit 3 in November 2016, and its decades-long, multibillion-dollar expansion. And like it or not, we're paying it.

Opponents say Sound Transit was deliberately vague about costs, and the bills aim to help rebate customers over time and rein in the agency. Multiple bills were proposed in the 2017 legislative session, but none passed.

Kuderer argues while car tab costs must be cut, the will of the voters is to pay for 116 miles of light rail funded by ST3.

A catch

In a complicated piece of legislative language, the bill allows Sound Transit to make up for the reduction in car tab revenue by taking money from a program used to benefit low-income children and education.

The account was set up as part of the Sound Transit package, and it was set to gain around $500 million over 10 years for low-income students. But Sound Transit will now use that money to offset losses if the car tab relief bill passes.  Kuderer said allowing Sound Transit to take from the fund was necessary to keep rail projects going.

"What it does is it gives Sound Transit the flexibility to use the accounts set up," Kuderer said.

Sound Transit officials were not immediately available for comment.

Sen. Steve O'Ban, R-University Place,  said the bill only offered "meager" tax relief, while at the detriment to the less fortunate.

"My friends across the aisle are more interested in protecting Sound Transit than protecting taxpayers and the fund created to help the homeless and kids," O'Ban said in a statement.

O'Ban had previously proposed car tab relief amendments.

The bill must pass both chambers by the end of the 2018 legislative session on March 8.