Washington state voters, whose ballots have trended left of center in recent years, took a right turn on Tuesday in approving Initiative King Tim Eyman’s latest anti-tax measure, Initiative 976.
How could that happen given the deep blue hue of King County and other highly populated left-leaning enclaves?
It seems the majority of voters have reached the tax-and-fee saturation point. And car tabs are a fee that impacts the majority of Washingtonians and it’s one they have to write a check for every year.
I-967 repeals, reduces or removes authority to impose certain vehicle taxes and fees and limit annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30.
Statewide, about 56 percent of voters approved I-976. Walla Walla County voters felt even stronger as more than 65 percent of voters favored the initiative.
Ultimately, it’s the state Legislature and local governments that irked voters to the point they approved I-976 despite the assertions — backed by reality — that it will lead to cuts in funding for road construction and public transit.
The potential negative impacts of I-976 were very well publicized, so let’s assume that the majority of voters understood the ramifications of approving the measure. That might seem counterintuitive given that voters, whether in Walla Walla or Seattle, cite roads and transportation as among their top priority.
To understand why 56 percent of the state’s voters seemed to vote against what they say they want, it’s important to look at the history of the $30 car tab. Eyman came to the public’s attention in 2000 when he pitched Initiative 695, which set car tabs at $30 a year rather than basing them on about 2 percent of the vehicle’s value. At that time, car tabs were routinely at least $200 a year, often far more.
The annual license fee was outrageously high and voters expressed their outrage in approving the measure. While I-695 was ultimately declared unconstitutional by the courts, the Legislature — feeling the wrath of voters — reduced the license tab fee to $30. The loss of revenue was clearly a set back for efforts to upgrade roads and operate local transit systems, including Walla Walla’s Valley Transit. (Voters locally approved an increase in the sales tax to fully fund Valley Transit.)
Over time, the Legislature and local governments across the state added fees to license renewal tabs that pushed the final cost to around $80 in many counties, and far higher in places like King County. While this fee was far less egregious than the $200 to $500 license tab fee, it was still grating.
And Eyman astutely tapped into the grumbling to get I-976 on the ballot and approved.
That means the Legislature and local governments are going to have to figure out how to make their budgets balance without those fees.
In doing so, they should keep in mind what voters did on Tuesday. They voted for “$30 car tabs” and tinkering with that easy-to-remember phrase (and election slogan) is a political loser with voters — whether conservative, moderate or liberal.