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The Ritzville Adams County Journal - Eastern Adams County's Only Independent Voice Since 1887

By Brandon Cline
Managing Editor 

Editorial: Why I'm voting to reject Initiative 976


Last updated 10/17/2019 at 10:20am

When it comes to state initiatives on the 2019 general election ballot in Washington state, one of the most important decisions voters will have to make is on Initiative 976, the Tim Eyman-sponsored initiative that would, among other things, set vehicle registration fees at $30 and do away with local vehicle fees that are used to fund local infrastructure projects.

While the proposal seems dream-like, the reality of the situation is anything but. If I-976 were to pass, a report from the state’s Office of Financial Management finds that the statewide transportation budget would see a $4.2 billion revenue loss over the next six years, which includes a projected $2.3 billion revenue loss to local governments.

The overall damage to local governments would be especially critical, as I-976 would repeal local authority to impose a transportation benefit district (TBD) vehicle fee. Over 60 municipalities in the state use TBD vehicle fees to fund critical local improvements, such as road construction and maintenance, local transit systems and sidewalks.

In the 2019 fiscal year, TBD vehicle fees were expected to fund an estimated $62.3 million for these local infrastructure improvements, ranging from $20,988 in Kittitas, to $93,179 in Prosser, to $949,780 in Richland, and so on. If I-976 were to pass, that revenue would be eliminated on day one of the initiative going into effect, on Dec. 5, 2019.

TBD vehicle fees are approved either directly by the voters living in these localities or by local governments, the members of which are elected by the communities that they represent. I-976 would circumvent the will of these voters and local government officials by repealing even the option for voters or for local governments to adopt these fees that fund these local construction projects.

State funding for both state and local projects would also be in jeopardy if I-976 were to be approved and upheld by the courts. Connecting Washington is a $16 billion program with strong bipartisan support that was fully phased-in during the summer of 2016. Over the length of the 16-year program, the program is projected to fund: $9.4 billion for state highways and local roads; $1.4 billion for state highway maintenance, operations and preservation; and $1.3 billion for non-highway projects such as bike paths, walkways, rail and transit.

It is funded mostly by an 11.9-cent gas tax increase, but $2 billion comes from vehicle weight fees, which would be eliminated by I-976. Many of the projects that are currently being funded or are slated to be funded by the Connecting Washington program could be in danger of being scrapped.

Those are projects like the US 395 Safety Corridor Improvements Project between Pasco and Ritzville, which was awarded $15 million in Connecting Washington funds and began construction earlier this summer. The project plans to incorporate acceleration and deceleration lanes, improve existing left turn lanes and construct safety improvements between Pasco and Ritzville that are aimed toward reducing congestion and the risk of collisions.

These infrastructure projects, both local and statewide, are crucial in maintaining a state economy that has been booming in recent years. Washington had the fastest-growing and 10th largest economy in the country in 2018, according to U.S. Commerce Department data released this year. The state’s real gross domestic product grew by 5.7% in 2018, almost double the national rate.

Ensuring that our bridges and roads are safe and that the trains and buses run on time is crucial to keeping Washington’s economy on the right track. And for one of the most export-reliant states in the country, it is critical that the goods and supplies from Washington’s farms and businesses can move as quickly and efficiently as possible.

And yes, while it would be great to see car tab fees and other costs come down, Washington is in the middle of the road in the U.S. when it comes to overall individual tax burden, and even on the lower end of the spectrum according to some studies.

According to a report earlier this year from WalletHub, which factored in an individual’s property tax rate, individual income tax rate and total sales and excise tax rate, individuals in Washington have the 32nd highest total state tax burden at 8.2%, lower than states such as Nebraska, North Carolina, Utah, Indiana and Pennsylvania. That’s what happens when there’s no income tax in our state.

With the stakes so high, it’s no wonder that elected officials, companies and organizations from across the state’s political, business and municipal spectrum have united together to oppose I-976. Opponents of the initiative include: Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO; Association of Washington Business; Washington Economic Development Association; Climate Solutions; Washington State Patrol Troopers Association; the cities of Cheney and Vancouver; Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians; Gov. Jay Inslee; and the Mainstream Republicans of Washington.

With all of that being said, I will be opposing Initiative 976 when I fill out my ballot in the coming weeks. In my view, there’s too much on the line for the communities in our state to be voting otherwise.


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