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King County transit measure: Nobody’s favorite, but a favorite to win

Waiting for a Metro 150, which connects Downtown Seattle, Kent and Auburn Credit: Oran Viriyincy/Flickr

Keep your hand-wringing to yourself.”

This was one of the earliest, best pieces of advice I got in political strategy: No matter your personal ambivalence when advocating for a political cause, it is important to embrace the positive and minimize the negative. It’s a sound idea. Voters, like any humans, want to feel confident when endorsing change. Voters know that no solution is perfect, but an anxious voter is probably a “no” voter.  People are risk-averse, the strategic thinking goes, and instilling ambivalence is doing your opponents' work for them.

It’s interesting, then, that the campaign to raise revenue through a newly formed King County Transportation Benefit District (KCTBD) is choosing to brace outspoken ambivalence.

The measure will be on the April 22 election ballot for voters in King County. They will be deciding whether to raise taxes to support transit — mainly existing levels of Metro bus service — as well as to provide some additional support to cities' road maintenance and bridge repair work.

KCTBD Proposition 1 supporters concede that both the $60 Vehicle License Fee and 0.1 percent sales tax increase will be strongly regressive, falling more heavily on people of modest means. Even with the proposed introduction of a low-income fare and the availability of a low-income Vehicle License Fee rebate, Proposition 1 is not anyone’s favorite option. Proponents labeled the idea “Plan B” from the start.  Indeed, I have yet to see an elected official speak in favor of the April 22 ballot measure without bemoaning the Legislature for failing to act on transportation, in effect tying the locals to an option that involves regressive taxation.

In another situation, this might be the sign of a campaign lost in a death spiral of negativity. That has certainly happened before.  The Puget Sound area is 2-for-4 on passing regional transit measures in the past 20 years. A 2011 Seattle measure, also including $60 licensing fees (car tabs), easily failed. Much of the measure’s stumbling was because of opposition from progressive groups who felt it exacerbated inequities in the tax structure. Entering the November election hobbled with only mixed progressive support, the measure, Seattle's Proposition 1, went down 56 to 44 percent.

Is 2014’s KCTBD Proposition 1 doomed to a similar fate? It depends which evidence you prioritize, but I think not.

To understand why, consider the past failures of past. One of my favorite campaign post-mortems is Ben Schiendelman’s  thoughtful analysis of 2011’s bloodied Proposition 1. Schiendelman, a supporter of both the 2011 Seatle Proposition 1 and this year’s, argued that ballot measures usually come down to a simple question: “How much will I get, and how much will I pay?” In the “get” category, voters want focused benefits — specific, relatable improvements in their community; in the “pay” category, voters are more tolerant of costs that are gradual, subtle and/or diluted. This follows the conventional political wisdom from before: Articulate the positives well, and leave it to your opponent  to muddy the waters.

The good news for the Prop. 1 supporters this year is that the “get” category is being handled winningly. Left-leaning groups —transit riders, environmentalists, social service advocates, and Democrats – are undivided in their support. That wasn’t true in 2011.  Also much-improved is the clarity on affected projects. Protecting pre-existing local bus service is a lot more concrete than long-term infrastructure and road development. That distinguishes KCTBD Prop. 1 from previous failures, which were criticized either or ambiguity (2011’s Seattle TBD Prop. 1), or for being too unfocused (2007’s Sound Transit Prop. 1). 

No doubt the “pay” side is tougher for KCTBD Prop. 1 supporters. Sales tax and car tabs are very concrete costs. Voters notice them, and know that they’re regressive. However, by pre-empting these concerns and aligning liberal groups early, the KCTBD Prop. 1 campaign seems to have taken the wind out of the opposition sails. Indeed, so far no organized opposition has even materialized. Even if the “pay” side is concrete, it will be hard to ding KCTBD Prop. 1 without institutional backing.

Does that mean KCTBD Prop. 1 will pass? Probably, unless voters independently decide that the measure is fatally flawed. When it comes to licensing fee hikes, though, that’s not a possibility that should be dismissed.

There is a solid, apparent “floor” of opposition to vehicle licensing fees in King County. In 1999, 46.7 percent of King County voters supported Initiative 695, which cut the state motor vehicle excise tax (yearly car tabs) and required voters approve any new taxes.  In 2002 (after I-695 was declared unconstitutional), Eyman proposed Initiative 776, limiting state tab fees to $30 and eliminating local-option vehicle excise taxes. This measure, which was ultimately ruled unconstitutional as well, passed narrowly statewide, and received 40.4 percent in King County.

If anything, this 40.4 percent may underrepresent the floor for licensing fee skeptics in King County. Both votes, in particular 2002’s, were panned by municipalities worried about significant revenue hits. In 2002, voters were asked to remove a pre-existing revenue source, something that might cause risk-averse voters to balk, even if they’re uncomfortable with licensing fees. That same sort of risk-averse voter might be wary of introducing new licensing fees.

The other troubling factor for the current transit-and-roads measure: Other transportation measures have been floated in much more urban districts. The successful 2008 Sound Transit Prop. 1 passed King County with 60.5 percent of the vote. However, its margin was much lower outside of the city of Seattle, with only 53.7 percent of non-Seattle voters approving. Take a look at this map, which shows the precinct results for the 2008 measure. The green areas (where the measure passed) fade toward yellow and orange (tied and failing returns, respectively) as you move from the suburbs to the exurbs.

It’s those exurbs, places like Maple Valley and Duvall, that will be voting in 2014 but weren’t in the picture in 2008. In 2008, 40 percent of voters in the King County portion of the Sound Transit district were from Seattle. In 2014, that number will be down to 35  percent. With those new voters likely less transit-friendly, these marginal changes could be enough to sink the measure if it’s a close contest.

Still, though, these are a few troubling variables among many promising ones. Proposition 1 is not a slam dunk, but most signs seem to point to passage. It may not be particularly triumphant — this is 'Plan B,' after all — but chances are good for a victory party on Election Night.

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