Proposal for ST3 rebate program gains traction

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A new proposal out of Olympia would create a rebate program for low-income drivers hit hard by soaring car-tab fees.

And, unlike a series of other bills taking aim at the formula used to calculate car-tab taxes, this bill is one that Sound Transit is seriously considering.  

House Bill 2148, sponsored by Rep. Kristine Reeves (D-Federal Way) would have Sound Transit offer a rebate of up to 40 percent on car-tab fees for low-income vehicle owners.

"We were hearing from a lot of neighbors, about the strain that these additional taxes are going to put on their families. And ultimately that means real money out of their pockets that isn't going to go into putting food on the table or a roof over their head," said Rep. Reeves. "So this was really trying to find a strategic way to engage in putting real money into real folks pockets, without damaging, I think, the potential of these projects that voters did approve and do want to see happen in the long term."

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Reeves is referring to the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 package that was approved by voters last November. It will expand light rail service throughout the Sound Transit District in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.

But many drivers have said they didn't expect the tax increase to raise their car-tab fees quite so much. Some have gotten bills from the Department of Licensing that are double or triple what they were before the ST3 taxes took effect.

"I mean, we're hearing from disabled veterans living on a fixed income, we've heard from senior citizens," said Reeves. "Essentially this bill says that if you meet the threshold under the state's current definition of a low-income family, you would be able to petition Sound Transit for some relief."

Mac McFerrin is a father of five who lives in Federal Way.  He said the $150 increase on his car-tab fees is money his family will certainly miss.

"I have a set of ten-month-old twins. So that's extra diapers, extra milk, extra clothing, just anything extra for my family, I could be spending $150 on that," he said.

McFerrin said he'd be in favor of a rebate program because he says every dollar makes a difference.

"If you qualify, that'll be nice. That's the thing, just have to qualify," he said. "I think any  time someone can get a break and get something back, that's always a good thing. That's what it's really about, finding ways to help people make it through."

The bill would also offer a similar rebate of up to 40 percent on ST3 property taxes for low-income homeowners.

The CEO of Sound Transit said that Reeves' bill is something Sound Transit is seriously considering, to ease the burden of low-income families caught off-guard by the ST3 tax increase.

Sound Transit said a rebate program would not impair bond contracts, which has been the main concern with other proposals targeting the formula Sound Transit uses to calculate a car's taxable value.

Sound Transit said it's currently analyzing the proposal to see if it's something they could start doing.  

Seattle has a similar rebate program. Sound Transit said they are reviewing Seattle's income-based rebate program, and talking to city staff about the program's implementation and fiscal impacts.

"I wouldn't want to commit to any particular percentage at this point because we need to know we can get the revenue to deliver the projects voters endorsed, but just the concept of a rebate of some sort for people in difficult financial circumstances," said Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff.  "If there's a way to do something similar on the car-tabs, we're open to it."