Even in tax-happy Seattle, $60 car fee rejected

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Posted: Nov 09, 2011 5:46 PM
Even in tax-happy Seattle, $60 car fee rejected

Perhaps it was the struggling economy. Perhaps it was the thought of paying triple figures for vehicle registration. But Seattle voters did something on Tuesday they don't often do: They said no to a tax increase.

As many states and cities face budget deficits tied to the Great Recession, lawmakers and voters have been reluctant to raise taxes, or to even bring up the issue.

Not the Emerald City. Voters here have approved $1.3 billion in tax increases since 2000 to fund parks, low-income housing and to renovate the city's iconic Pike Place Market. On top of that, voters have approved $2.9 billion for schools.

Rejected tax increases are rare in Seattle. Among the last two times voters said "no" to new taxes: a proposal that would have added 10 cents to espressos and other coffee drinks in 2003 to pay for early learning, and a 20-cent disposable bag fee in 2009.

This year, the $60 car tab fee on the ballot Tuesday proved to be too much as well, with 60 percent of the voters rejecting it. The proposal, backed by Mayor Mike McGinn and the City Council, would have paid for transportation, mass transit and bicycle projects. It would have raised about $200 million over 10 years.

But it would have come on top of car tab fees the city council had previously approved. Seattle residents would have paid at least $130 to register a car had the proposal been approved.

"In this economy, people are going to say no unless it's going to fund something really vital," said Chris Vance, former Washington state Republican chairman and now a political consultant. "Seattle is very liberal, very green, but they're not immune to the effects of the economy."

But Tuesday's election wasn't a complete anti-tax message. City voters did approve a $230 million expiring levy for education on Tuesday.

So what happened with the transportation measure?

John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, an advocacy group for the poor, said the city already has high sales taxes and water rates. He said he lobbied all members of the city council, but they pushed for the package anyway.

Part of his campaign against the car tab fee was to convince Seattle that it's OK to reject taxes every once in a while.

"It wasn't an anti-tax effort," Fox said. "But this is liberal Seattle, we sent a message that it was OK to liberals and progressives to say no to a tax that was so regressive that didn't address basic needs in the city, and that rang true with voters."

Proponents of the $60 car tab fee say their main flaw was not defining what the money was going to do. Another concern was that the tax was regressive, affecting the city's poor the most.

McGinn's lackluster popularity also may have doomed the efforts. And the package also included money for a street car - one not many people use.

"It got slaughtered," Seattle City Council member Nick Licata said Wednesday, later adding, "Overall, I think we have a very sophisticated and thoughtful electorate in Seattle. I think they thought it was not something that a complete package."

Licata said among several mistakes, the City Council misjudged the support for the package, relying on the voice of a citizen's group that lobbied for it.

"If it was a broad anti-taxes sentiment, the families levy wouldn't have passed and it did. This is more a reflection of the character of this particular ballot issue," he said.

Chuck Ayers, director of the Cascade Bicycle Club, echoed that the campaign had many problems, including the economy's slump.

"We've been an economic recession for three years or so, it's hard at an individual level to pay 60 bucks per car, even if it was ultimately for a good project," Ayers said.

In a statement, McGinn, who initially wanted an $80 car tab fee, said the city's leaders would retool the package and try again.

"What I've heard from voters is that the taxing mechanism in Proposition 1 was regressive. I understand that concern, and I'm dedicated to a progressive transportation system that gives people affordable ways to get around," he said. "We'll keep working on this, because the need to catch up on maintenance and improve transit is not going away."

Meantime, opponents reveled in their victory.

"This is a huge kick in the rear end four council members," Fox said. "They can't skim over low-income people, on seniors ... it's a rare victory for those constituencies."

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Associated Press writer Chris Grygiel contributed to this report.


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