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Spin Control: Return of the hated MVET roils Seattle drivers, some Washington lawmakers

Sun., March 19, 2017

Sen. Patty Murray, right, and others depart after a test ride and media briefing for a Sound Transit Link light rail train Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2008, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Sen. Patty Murray, right, and others depart after a test ride and media briefing for a Sound Transit Link light rail train Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2008, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

As the westernmost outpost of the Spokane newspaper, it’s hard not to take some vicarious but guiltless pleasure in an ongoing fight in the Legislature that matters hardly at all to Eastern Washington readers.

That is the huge, and if some are to be believed, completely unexpected increase for license plate tabs now being visited on car owners in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

The money will be used to pay for various projects by the Sound Transit Authority, including the light rail system pushing its way north from downtown Seattle at a pace that might be admired only by a glacier.

The light rail is very nice, Spokane readers who haven’t ridden it can be assured. Try it the next time you have to get from Sea-Tac to downtown or even the University of Washington campus, to avoid renting a car that must eventually be parked in a tiny space for an exorbitant fee.

But many Seattleites seem to regard mass transit as something others should use to clear the highways for them, and thus have a love-hate relationship with Sound Transit. For many, this turned to hate-loathing after opening this year’s bills for car tabs and discovering the fees for that little colored sticker with an 18 are double, or in some cases treble, last year’s.

This prompted calls to their legislators, some of whom were so incensed they rushed to eager television cameras to denounce the higher fees and the way they are calculated. So who had the audacity to give Sound Transit the authority to do this?

The Legislature and the voters.

In 2015, as part of a humongous transportation package many lawmakers hail as a historic bipartisan feat, they gave the agency the ability to collect money several ways to pay off projects. One was by convincing voters to approve a motor vehicle excise tax, which is a certain amount based on the value of a car.

Readers might recall the MVET as a four-letter word state voters did away with in 1999 because many thought they were being charged too much for the old jalopy they were driving, and because the money was being squandered by government bureaucrats who could get along just fine with less. Surprise, surprise. The resurrected MVET is prompting the same complaints from the denizens of greater Pugetopolis.

Apparently, legislators who voted for that 2015 transportation bill weren’t concerned that they were giving the loaded MVET gun to Sound Transit, which reached back to 1996 for a formula that starts with the manufacturer’s suggested retail price when the car was new and drops a bit every year. Critics say that creates unreasonably high assessments on used cars, especially those just a few years old, and it should be replaced with something like the Kelley Blue Book value.

Unfortunately, the best time to do that might’ve been 2015, when crafting the humongous transpo bill, or at least before voters approved a tax package that included the MVET last November to pay for some $54 billion in bonds. Voters may not have read the fine print in the election pamphlet, but it probably didn’t say anywhere, “Hey, if you own a shiny new car, next year’s tab will cost you more than a month’s loan payment.”

There is outrage on talk radio, exposes on Seattle television, requests for an attorney general’s opinion that the 1996 formula Sound Transit is using is illegal, and a flurry of bills to at least reduce the pain.

But no clear path out before 2028, when the current bonds will be paid off. In the meantime, the next time you pay for your car tab might be a reason to dash a note off to the Guardian newspaper in London and say you have another reason to be happy in Spokane, other than a college basketball team that wins a bunch of games.

Raising the flag

Anyone spending time around the Legislature knows its schedule is rife with “good little bills,” which is code for something noncontroversial enough to pass without much fuss. One such bill is House Bill 1204, which would require government installations to fly the POW/MIA flag two more days of the year.

This might cause some people to ask “What flag?” It’s the black flag with a silhouetted head in a white circle with a guard tower, and the legend “You Are Not Forgotten.” It sometimes flies below the Stars and Stripes on government installation poles large enough to handle two flags.

State law requires state institutions, colleges, counties, cities and towns to fly that flag on eight days. Several you can probably guess: Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day, and four others that seem logical, even if you don’t know when they are: Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day (March 30); Armed Forces Day (third Saturday in May); National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day (July 27); and National POW/MIA Recognition Day (third Friday in September).

The bill, which passed the House 97-0, would add Pearl Harbor Day, and one not so familiar, Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day (April 9). The idea is to help people, particularly children, remember the sacrifice prisoners of war, those missing in action and their families have made.

Of course, one could argue this good little bill could use a good little amendment saying the POW/MIA flag should be flown year-round to help people remember anytime they see it, rather than on some days when we might not remember exactly why it’s flown.

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