Elected officials from Thurston County and the City of Yelm are voicing concern over Initiative 976, a statewide measure placed on the Nov. 5 ballot that would cut vehicle tab fees and potentially harm future transportation projects in the process, critics say.
If passed, I-976 would limit state and local taxes, fees and other vehicle charges, according to the initiative’s language. The initiative aims to limit vehicle tabs and other annual motor vehicle licensing to $30, base vehicle taxes on Kelley Blue Book value and repeal authorization for regional transit authorities to impose motor vehicle excise taxes.
The initiative is sponsored by Tim Eyman, a conservative political activist who has many times put anti-tax initiatives on statewide ballots. I-976 had a public hearing on the state House and Senate committees earlier this year, but was ultimately stalled during the Legislative session.
Following an Oct. 22 public hearing on the matter, Thurston County commissioners voted 3-0 to oppose I-976.
Thurston County estimates the initiative could eliminate more than $1.9 billion in state transportation and public safety funding over a six-year period.
“I think we’re in a sad situation here where we’re actually being blackmailed, is about the best way I could put it,” Commissioner Gary Edwards said. “Unfortunately, the state Legislature could have dealt with this particular situation in a much more effective manner than the voters.”
Edwards also said major projects, such as the State Route 510 Yelm bypass, could be negatively affected if I-976 were to pass.
“It’s a road to nowhere if we don’t finish it,” he said of the project nearly three decades in the making. “I’ve heard from others in government say that if we lose this funding we’re going to be stuck in that particular situation. So, I feel that I am in a box.”
Commissioner John Hutchings said the initiative could also have negative implications on local transit systems.
“Many important safety updates, projects addressing traffic flow, and projects addressing ecological issues across the state and our county will be stalled or not completed due to lack of funding. Our vital Intercity Transit and Rural Transit systems could also lose funding which would be a detriment to our community,” Hutchings later said in a press release.
Frequent public commenter Jon Pettit, an Olympia resident, and documentarian and citizen journalist Glen Morgan were the only two members of the public to speak at the commissioners’ meeting when the action was taken. Both disagreed with the position of the commissioners.
County Manager Ramiro Chavez said prior to the public hearing that he had not received any written testimony.
In a post to Facebook, Yelm City Council member Molly Carmody said the city has taken a stance against I-976, citing the potential reduction of funding for the second and final phase of the Yelm bypass project.
The city’s statement also cited concerns with gridlock associated with Interstate 5 and how tight traffic congestion was during the 2017 DuPont train derailment.
“Although it’s not clear where they would begin to cut funding if the initiative passes, however, it’s simple math that when you remove revenue from a dedicated fund source, you must cut projects. We are concerned that if I-976 passes, it would have a negative impact on transportation projects in the Yelm area and the entire South Sound region,” Carmody wrote of the city’s standing.
Yelm Mayor JW Foster said the local effects of I-976’s potential passage on local transportation projects is unclear.
“We just don’t know. It’s not like Olympia, who’s very directly impacted by 976,” Foster said. “But, like the statement said, if there are cuts made, projects around the state will suffer … This is the kind of thing we fear impacting us locally.”