A Senate committee questioned several Sound Transit employees, a law professor and anti-tax advocate Tim Eyman during the first of two “investigatory work sessions” looking into Sound Transit’s conduct leading up to the vote on Sound Transit 3.
Union members packed Kent’s City Council chambers, listening to testimony before the Senate Law and Justice Committee on whether the bill language for ST3 was unconstitutionally drafted and if Sound Transit misled the legislature on the size of the final ST3 package.
State Senators Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, and Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, requested the work sessions after accusing Sound Transit of deceiving legislators and the public. Peter Rogoff, CEO of Sound Transit, issued a statement Tuesday, calling the assertions “baseless.”
Trying to sum up the first issue, Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said the bill that authorized the ST3 taxes, SB 5987, adopted a motor vehicle excise tax schedule that had been repealed back in 1996, rather than setting a new schedule.
David DeWolf, Professor of Law at Gonzaga University, told the committee he found SB 5987 to be noncompliant with the state code because it “didn’t set forth in full what the existing statute is that would be affected and how it would be affected.”
“The only way you could figure out what the new rule would be would be to hunt down the provision 82.44 (RCW), which isn’t even cited to the specific section, and find it in the older, now repealed statutes,” DeWolf said.
Disagreeing with DeWolf about the lack of clarity in the bill, Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Capitol Hill, pointed to the bill report, which he said most legislators would be more likely to read, rather than the text of the bill. The report states that “the depreciation schedule remains the same as the MVET schedule in effect for the existing MVET until the bonds are repaid.”
And both Pedersen and Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle contend the legislature did know what it was voting on recalling for the committee that in 2015, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, offered an amendment to SB 5987 specifically addressing the MVET schedule. The amendment, which did not pass, called for ST3 to use the updated 2015 MVET schedule.
Investigating how the ST3 package grew from $15 billion of new tax revenue to $28 billion, the committee heard testimony from Sound Transit Spokesperson Geoff Patrick, Director of Government and Community Relations Ann McNeil, and attorney Desmond Brown, along with Eyman.
Sound Transit says the initial $15 billion figure represented just the amount of new tax revenue that could be generated over 15 years. The agency’s board expanded the ST3 package to 25 years after hearing from residents that a more ambitious transit packaged was desired.
O’Ban cited an April 2017 News Tribune article where Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, was quoted: “Clibborn, the House Transportation Committee chairwoman, said she’s not sure lawmakers would have signed off on Sound Transit 3 if they had known how big the tax proposal would become.
“I think if you had said, ‘We’re going to bond this and we’re going to ask for $54 billion,’ it would not have gone anywhere,” Clibborn said. “Nobody was going to do that. … Everybody was having this $15 billion in front of them.””
“Isn’t it fair to say,” O’Ban asked McNeil, “that Sound Transit really failed to accurately and clearly explain the scope of the taxing authority they were seeking from the legislature, if they couldn’t even clearly and accurately explain this to Judy Clibborn?”
“We made every attempt to articulate the request the (Sound Transit) board was making to the Legislature,” she replied.
An investigation by the Washington Public Disclosure Commission concluded, “No evidence was found that members of Sound Transit staff or its contracted lobbyists deceived or attempted to deceive any legislator regarding any aspect of Sound Transit 3.”
In the audience in support of ST3 was Sean Bagsby, president of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 46. He called the attacks on ST3 unnecessary.
“I voted for (ST3), and I was well aware there was going to be an increase in my vehicle’s tabs,” said Bagsby. “For me, it’s more about population. Population will never decrease, you have to move people around.”
“Transit’s never free,” he added. “If you want to do it, you are going to have to pay for it, it’s never going to be free. It’s never going to be easy. But the sooner you do it, the better it is for everybody.”
Bagsby said at least nine different unions were represented in the audience.
“At Sound Transit, we are working hard every day to deliver the transit alternatives approved by voters in 2008 and 2016,” Rogoff said in a press release Tuesday. “To be successful in these endeavors, we need strong partnerships with federal, state and local governments. Baseless assertions do not move our region forward.”
The committee’s second work session is scheduled for 1pm on October 5 at the City of Everett’s Community Resource Center (3900 Broadway Avenue) in the School Board Room. The committee plans to discuss the last matter O’Ban and Rossi requested examined: whether Sound Transit inappropriately participated in Proposition 1 in 2016.