Fill Spokane’s First Interstate Center for the Arts to the gills. Every seat in the stately opera house.
That’s how many more Spokane residents voted against Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976 than for it. Within Spokane city limits, voters rejected the ballot measure by more than 2,600 votes.
Like those who live in the citified heart of Washington – Seattle and King County – the urban denizens of Spokane were wary of Eyman’s pitch to dismantle the state’s transportation funding mechanism with his simplistic message of $30 car tabs.
Regardless, the measure passed statewide with 53% of the vote – a healthy margin of 119,000 votes. And as Abraham Lincoln said, “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”
In other words, elections have consequences. One of those consequences is figuring out how to pay for our roads, and Spokane’s elected leaders are brainstorming ways to pay for what was lost with I-976, even as the measure works its way through the courts after being challenged over its constitutionality.
At a committee meeting last week, some City Council members discussed asking voters to increase property taxes to pay for road work, following last month’s approval of a ballot measure that defunded the city’s Transportation Benefit District. Since 2012, the local $20 annual registration fee generated between $2 million and $3 million for residential road repair each year, and went to fixing 78 miles of roads between 2012 and 2018.
Breean Beggs, the incoming City Council president who asked for the discussion, said he’s not interested in reinstating the local registration fee, which would require a vote of the people following I-976’s passage. He called the fee a “regressive” tax that is unfair to people with lower incomes.
Instead, Beggs has recommended tapping into property taxes to fund local roadwork.
That too would require something on the ballot, and Spokane voters have approved similar taxes before. Most recently, in 2014 more than 77% of voters approved of a ten-year street levy to pay for arterial roads. The levy, which tapped property taxes to pay for roads, was a continuation of sorts of the 10-year, $117 million street bond passed in 2004.
In one option Beggs and the council are considering, voters would be asked to approve a “levy lid lift” that could raise taxes as much as 38 cents for every $1,000 of assessed value, for up to six years. At most, this would raise about $8 million, considering the current city levy rate stands at $3.22 for every $1,000 of value, and state law says the rate cannot exceed $3.60.
Only a simple majority, or one vote over 50%, is needed for a levy lid lift.
The other option the council is looking at would ask voters to approve an excess property tax. State law allows transportation benefit districts to levy property tax in excess of the 1% increase allowed by state law every year without voter approval. This type of request is not subject to the maximum levy rate of $3.60, so it could raise more money for road repair, but requires 60% of voters to approve it.
Either way, the city must decide relatively quickly, said City Attorney Mike Ormsby, noting that the process to get something on the ballot can take time and money. Even if city voters approved the new taxes during the earliest possible special election in February, the soonest taxes would come to city coffers is April 2021.
What’s more, Ormsby suggested waiting until the primary or general election of 2020 to avoid paying $230,000, which is what the public safety special election in February cost the city.
At risk of sounding like a broken record, the solutions suggested by Eyman, anti-tax activist and candidate for governor, were too simplistic for what is a very complex transportation system.
Transportation funding, too, is a complex beast, and it’s never been a pay-as-you-go, pay-what-you-use approach. It’s nearly impossible to calculate what each of us pays to get ourselves around, with all the fuel, insurance, parking, maintenance and other incidentals, not to mention new pavement, new bridges, transit lines and the rest.
But it’s a lot. If your family is anything like the average American family, you spend about 20% of your household income on transportation, according to the Federal Highway Administration. For a family earning the median household income in Spokane, that amounts to nearly $9,000 a year.
In 2019, the federal government spent $45.7 billion on highways alone. This year, Washington state passed a nearly $10 billion, two-year transportation budget. The city of Spokane has budgeted another $24 million for residential and arterial streets in 2020. Spokane Transit Authority will spend $84 million in operating expenses in 2020.
All of which is to say that we are all part of a vast and complicated transportation network. If we’re going to use it, we have to pitch in. Voters in the city of Spokane understood that this year. But will they when Beggs asks them to tap into their property taxes – once again – to pay for the roads we all share?
Take this with a grain of salt
On Thursday, the city of Spokane used 29,959 gallons of deicer on city streets.
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