As the Seattle City Council wrestles with the annual task of creating a new budget, Washington communities have to deal with the specter of a voter-approved initiative that may cut the city’s transit budget by $32 million per year.
The Nov. 5 election ushered in perhaps the most progressive slate of councilmembers in the city so far, a repudiation of business interests — famously, Amazon — that flooded the race with cash in the weeks leading up to the big finish.
However, only four of Washington’s 39 counties voted for Referendum 88 to reinstate affirmative action — Olympia’s Thurston County split evenly with 50 percent of voters for the initiative and 50 percent against — and six counties voted down Initiative 976, a Tim Eyman special that purported to slash car tab fees to $30.
Initiative 976 axed Transportation Benefit Districts like Seattle’s, which allow local taxes atop state car-tab fees to fund mass transit. The initiative effectively removes the option for residents to voluntarily tax themselves for the benefit of better transit.
A coalition of cities and organizations, including Seattle and King County, filed suit on Nov. 13 challenging 976 and seeking an injunction to prevent it from taking effect in the first place.
In a press conference after the vote, Mayor Jenny Durkan called 976 an “irresponsible and dangerous measure” that would cost the city as much as $8 million in the current budget and $32 million each year to come.
“This is potentially catastrophic for Seattle and our region at a time we need to invest in more transit, not less transit,” Durkan said.
A near-term impact could be the loss of free orca passes for 15,000 students and 1,500 low-income residents in Seattle.
Plaintiffs vying to overturn the initiative say in their lawsuit that it is a “poorly drafted hodge-podge that violates multiple provisions of the Constitution,” including the single subject rule, which limits every piece of legislation to one major topic.
Seattle officials showed confidence in fighting this after the election.
“Had Mr. Eyman developed an initiative that was constitutional, I would not be here today,” said Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes.
The effects of Initiative 976 would be felt throughout the state, even in counties that voted to pass it.
Kitsap County voters narrowly approved 976 by .2 percent, a vote that might cost the county as much as $3.5 million per year. Kitsap Transit Executive Director John Clauson began making the rounds in a series of public meetings where he shared a short slideshow and effectively told constituents that officials do not know how the vote will end up impacting transit in the area.
On Nov. 16, a cloudy Saturday on Bainbridge Island, seven diehard transit aficionados came to the Bainbridge Island library to hear Clauson run through the details of the measure.
One potential response may be to “cannibalize” the capital budget, which means cuts to new buses, Clauson said.
New route additions and improvements in service will be first on the chopping block, as well as a low-ridership bus line that connects to the military base.
“Any further expansion is off the table,” Clauson told the audience.
One of the more damaging parts of the measure is its impact on Transportation Benefit Districts. Seattle could lose almost a third of its bus service hours as a result of I-976 because while 55 percent of transit funds come from a .1 percent sales tax that would not be impacted, much rides on Seattle-approved vehicle license fees.
That includes as much as 90 percent of the pothole repair budget atop the transit cuts, said Sam Zimbabwe, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation.
“It’s heartbreaking, in a lot of ways, that we have to consider these things,” Zimbabwe said.
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw told reporters that she would not consider cutting human services and the homelessness response to make up for the gaps at this point.
“I’m sticking with the budget that we have presented,” Bagshaw said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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