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Spin Control: Sharing the cost but not the benefit

Sun., March 23, 2014

OLYMPIA – Starting next year, you might be paying for Washington’s next ferry when you renew your car tabs at the courthouse.

Whether you want to or not. Whether there’s a ferry anywhere near you or not. Whether you have ever ridden or expect to ever ride on a ferry or not.

Sitting on Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk is E2SHB 1129, legislation that would add $5 to the annual vehicle renewal and $12 to a vehicle license transfer for some people, to raise money for the next 144-car ferry to ply the state’s busy Puget Sound crossings.

It was extolled as smart shopping for the state, which christened its first 144-car ferry last week and has No. 2 under construction in a Seattle shipyard. Keeping the production line open for a third boat, rather than shutting it down and restarting it, shaves a few million off the price, legislators said.

Because most things in Olympia need an “economic impact” argument to grease the skids, supporters said keeping that line open means family-wage jobs for boat workers, which boosts their communities. And newer, more reliable ferries that don’t break down when their World War II-era engines go kaput boosts the communities the boats serve.

With a buildup like this, there’s little wonder the Legislature gave strong support to raising vehicle fees for some folks. But which folks?

Logic, you might say, would suggest they decided to raise fees in the eight Puget Sound counties that actually have ferries and are going to get this economic adrenaline shot. Maybe for the rest of us, the fee would be voluntary, like donating to state parks. But betting on logic in the Legislature is a dangerous thing. Here’s what they came up with:

Right now, if you renew your tabs or transfer a vehicle title at a private company, known as a subagency, you pay what some call a convenience fee. The extra $5 for tabs and $12 for transfers help the subagent pay staff, make the rent and keep the lights on. It might be worth a little extra to do your tab or transfer business on the weekend or avoid a trip downtown.

The cheapskates among us will go to the courthouse for tabs or transfers. It’s also possible to save the fees by handling things by mail or over the Internet.

Under 1129 that differential would disappear on Jan. 1. Everyone would pay the same amount, no matter where they live or where they do their tab or transfer business. The fees paid to the subagent will still help the company make ends meet. But the fees collected at the county, by mail or online, will go into the ferry replacement account, to help the state buy its third 144-car ferry.

One can easily imagine some unhappy confrontations at county vehicle licensing counters in Eastern Washington, with some customers saying things that would make a ferry worker blush. Please don’t take it out on the hapless clerks.

“We don’t get any part of that $5 or $12,” Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said.

Auditors, by the way, were about the only group at legislative hearings this year who said “Wait a minute” to this funding scheme. The ferry system loved it. The shipbuilders loved it. The boat workers loved it. Vehicle subagents, who would see their price disadvantage disappear, loved it. The car dealers were OK with it, as long as legislators didn’t raise fees across the board or slap them onto the initial purchases, because God forbid the state would add $5 to the cost of a car.

It’s no big deal, some supporters said during hearings and floor speeches. Subagents do about 80 percent of the tab and transfer business, so only about 20 percent will even notice any difference, they said.

Actually, in Spokane and for the state as a whole, it’s more like one-third county, two-thirds subagent. But rather than getting bogged down by figures, let’s ask a policy question: Is it fair to equalize the amount that everyone pays for their tabs and transfers, but unequalize where the money goes?

A Spokane vehicle owner who goes into a subagent’s office and pays the convenience fee would still support a local business. A Spokane vehicle owner who goes to the courthouse would be out the same amount, but the money would support Puget Sound ferries and the attendant businesses in those communities.

Some legislators described it as a way to show we are all “one Washington.” But in Olympia, one quickly learns that’s a phrase folks use when what they really mean is all Washington should do something that mainly benefits one part of Washington. They just shorten it.

Spin Control, a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments, at

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