Reflections on Sound Transit Reflections
Recently I penned a guest blog post on Publicola outlining my reservations about the structural integrity of the $54 billion financing of Sound Transit 3.
I made the case that the poorly constructed financing plan negatively impacts public education by effectively transferring some key property tax authority from the state–currently not being utilized but still reserved for education–to the Sound Transit special purpose taxing district.
As I expected, the reaction to my thought piece has been overwhelmingly negative. And understandably so.
I myself find it distasteful to peel away the layers of how we as a state with an economically inefficient and inequitable tax structure have chosen to finance $54 billion. Aside from some exceptions of a few truly mean-spirited private Twitter comments, I will acknowledge that I have been generally comfortable with the harsh reactions because it shows a deep desire to do more for transportation and education outside of the tired constraints of a broken revenue structure. We need to build the energy for responsible tax reform to be the global leader we envision.
Still, because so much of the Sound Transit conversation is about the exciting spending and investment side (who gets what and when), I believe the overall public dialogue is improved by raising tough issues of how we responsibly pay for it.
Following my post, in addition to Heidi Groover’s fair coverage at The Stranger, two insightful policy responses are The Urbanist guest post by community activist Robert Cruickshank and Seattle Transit Blog’s Zach Shaner. Friendly reminders that we can engage in civic dialogue, battle over ideas and understand each others’ positions respectfully and substantively.
First, in reflecting on the response, I restate what was lost, in that I very much care about building a modern, 21st Century public infrastructure including rail, transit and an integrated network of transportation. It’s core to quality of life. I enjoy and support Sound Transit and I want it be successful and a robust part of our region’s future. I’m thrilled that after years of promises Northwest Seattle is finally in line to receive direct service and not just pay taxes.
The idea from some social media comments that I’m “anti-transit” because I had the chutzpah to publicly ask serious financial questions about how we raise $54 billion is ridiculous. Have we reached a point where a Democratic state legislator from Seattle–legally sworn to uphold the state constitution including the paramount duty clause–can’t openly question the accurate costs and bonding implications of a $54 billion financing plan because such probing could be seen as insufficiently progressive? That strains credibility. My district wants robust transit very, very much–and benefits enormously from this package–but our constituents also expect us to read the fine print of how to pay for it. That’s why we’re paid the big bucks.
I don’t mean to be flippant in reminding us that we’re spending $1.2 billion on a controversial deep bore tunnel to replace the Viaduct that has easily received 1000 times the policy debate, media coverage and activist scrutiny than the financing details of a $54 billion borrowing plan that will permanently alter the landscape of our taxation scheme.
Second, I should have been clearer in my first post: I am not in any way leading the charge to defeat the measure, I am not a warrior to start over, I am not joining any organized opposition, nor do I expect others to share my viewpoint. I simply went public with my private reservations about what I consider an inferior $54 billion financing plan after advocates prodded me to take a public stand on ST3. They were right to ask honestly and I think I was right to answer honestly instead of hiding behind obfuscation.
In deference to my constituents–among the most educated, engaged and thoughtful in the state–I believe I showed appropriate respect to my district to publicly share my financial concerns and not merely hide behind balloons and banners pretending there are no negative implications to this funding framework. It doesn’t mean in any way that I’m right and others are wrong it merely means the financing side of the package matters and should be on the front page and not buried in the footnotes.
Third, when Sound Transit came to Olympia with their proposed financing plan, I was chair of the House Finance Committee and I specifically raised the predicament of using the state portion of the property tax–reserved for education–for transportation. Here are some of my public positions outlining my strong and consistent opposition to redirecting the property tax away from education to Sound Transit here, here and here.
Understandably, Sound Transit would not, in any way, shape or form, enter into meaningful discussions with me about alternative financing options including my recommendation of a modest business and employee transportation fee with an exemption for small businesses of 50 employees or less. I made the case privately that premier companies such as Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft, Expedia, Starbucks and others may actually view an employee transportation fee as having a relevant, direct nexus of value worthy of discussion. If we are going to prioritize the spine in order to get people throughout the region, shouldn’t regional employers be a more robust part of the solution? I think many of our business leaders would be open to that constructive discussion. It’s not an entire solution but a modest link in a more progressive package. I made the case that it was at least worth private discussions with the broader business community to assess the option and potential of a deal based on a strong nexus of value.
With due respect and deference, I believe a modest business employee fee–designed in partnership with the business community for transportation–shouldn’t be a holy untouchable revenue source. Nor should additional targeted regional tolling. Moreover, designing a 50-year revenue model is hard. At a structural level, outside of the property tax, I think building 61% of the broader model on a sales tax base that is shrinking by the year (due to Internet, goods vs. services, etc.) is a mistake. Philosophically, I have long advocated a more ‘pay as you go’ approach to government.
Of course, Sound Transit knew that redirecting the state’s portion of the property tax was still preferable to other options for their internal needs: 1) using local property tax authority that would have been felt by their own city and county members; 2) risking upsetting the business community essential to support and funding of a pro-Sound Transit 3 campaign; 3) risking upsetting the more volatile Republican-led Senate and the deals needed to get authorization in the first place. Finally, they had other senior Democratic legislators on board so my complaints about the property tax component were, understandably, more of an outlier nuisance.
In fairness, in their shoes, I may have taken the same political position and I harbor no ill will toward individuals or the institution. In designing this package, they did what was in their best financial interests to keep ST3 moving forward.
Finally, there is a hippocratic oath in politics as in medicine: do no harm. I lost the battle in Olympia and I respect the broader desire to move forward with the current spending and revenue plan.
The teachable moment for me is a profound–and deeply powerful–reminder that in the end we at the state level don’t have the same passion, spirit, energy and drive to build a world-class education system that has been displayed in Seattle to build a 21st Century transportation system.
Your partner in service,