Senate Law and Justice Committee to consider charges against Sound Transit

Today the chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, Sen. Mike Padden, announced that he is planning to have the panel look into charges that Sound Transit engaged in a “systematic effort to confuse and misrepresent the impact and cost of the ST3 authorization to legislators and the public.”

In a letter to Senators Steve O’Ban and Dino Rossi, who last week made the initial call for an investigation and outlined the need for additional legislative scrutiny, Padden wrote:

“[T]he allegations raised [by Senators Rossi and O’Ban] are serious and merit further consideration. … Legislative oversight is an important constitutional duty and one that I take seriously. Anytime a state agency is alleged to have acted or failed to act in a way that harms the public, the Legislature should step in to carefully consider the matter.”

Rossi and O’Ban welcomed the news.

“The public has been crying out for someone – anyone – to hold Sound Transit accountable,” said Rossi, R-Sammamish.  “I am pleased that a key Senate committee with a track record of conducting fair and thorough investigations will be looking into the many legitimate questions about the bait-and-switch Sound Transit pulled on both lawmakers and the public.”

O’Ban pointed to public comments by House Transportation Committee chairwoman Judy Clibborn, who said lawmakers might not have signed off on the Sound Transit 3 proposal in 2015 if they knew it authorized $28 billion in new taxes that would be used to fund a $54 billion package.

According to a press report, Clibborn indicated a $54 billion package “would not have gone anywhere” with legislators, given the agency had only requested authorization for $15 billion in public testimony.

O’Ban said Clibborn’s statement is proof that tough questions need to be asked.

“When even Sound Transit’s biggest apologists are forced to admit that the overall funding authorization and spike in car-tab taxes are shockingly higher than anyone ever expected, it’s time to ask what’s really going on here,” said O’Ban, R-University Place. “If Sound Transit has been purposely misleading lawmakers and the public, we have a right to know.”

In their initial request, Rossi and O’Ban called for either the Senate Law and Justice Committee or Senate Transportation Committee to hold a hearing into Sound Transit’s communications with the Legislature and potentially improper participation in November 2016’s Proposition 1 (Sound Transit 3) election.

Earlier this year, the two lawmakers sent a letter to the state attorney general arguing the section of the 2015 bill that authorized Proposition 1 was unconstitutionally drafted – specifically, written in a way that didn’t make it clear that the bill was using an outdated vehicle valuation schedule. Nor did the legislation lay out, as required by the state constitution, the details of the older valuation schedule that would be used.

The attorney-general’s office refused to act on their request.

On May 2 the Senate passed Senate Bill 5893, O’Ban and Rossi’s measure to provide real relief to taxpayers facing car-tab taxes that are at least triple and sometimes quadruple what they paid just last year. The bill would essentially require Sound Transit to base car-tab taxes on a vehicle’s resale value as determined by Kelley Blue Book or the National Automobile Dealers Association, whichever is lower. It would also lower the car-tab rate by more than 50 percent and require Sound Transit to implement a taxpayer-rebate program.

The measure passed the Senate 25-20, and is awaiting action by the House.