Back in January, Socialist city council member Kshama Sawant was harshly critical of a proposal by King County Executive Dow Constantine to preserve funding for King County Metro by passing a regressive $60 vehicle license fee and 0.1 percent sales tax package.
Without the new revenues, Metro could cut service by as much as 17 percent. The agency has been seeking new taxing authority, such as a motor vehicle excise tax (which is indexed to the value of a person's car), from the state legislature for the last two years, with no luck; the VLF and sales tax are the only taxing options county officials have left.
Noting that regressive taxes fall hardest on working people (a flat $60 fee is a bigger burden if you're making $30,000 a year than if you're making $100,000), Sawant said at the time: "Seattle and King County have an obligation to find progressive and permanent sources of funding to ensure cuts are averted, fares are reduced, and that Metro service is expanded with new priority given to chronically under-served neighborhoods."
That kind of rhetoric is also common at public hearings on Metro service, from riders who are understandably alarmed by the prospect of paying more for the same service (Metro also plans to increase fares for the fifth time since 2008), and from economic-justice liberals (the "left wing of Seattle's progressive movement," as council member Mike O'Brien put it at a fundraiser for the proposal over the weekend).
"Maybe the timeline does not allow those potential options to be put in place in time, in which case we have to go with what we have. But ... the next time Metro is in crisis, we should make sure that we already progressive source of funding in place."—Kshama Sawant Ultimately, such concerns could coalesce to help kill the proposal, which is relying on lefty Seattle to carry it; voters, including lefty-left progressives, may simply be fed up with being asked for more and more money to avert a crisis that never seems to go away.
However, Sawant, perhaps the premier member of Seattle's purist left, recently told PubliCola that she does support the Metro measure. Adding context to her initial hardline stance, she told us she thinks the Metro proposal should be part of a larger conversation about Washington state's regressive tax system. Sawant has suggested levying a tax on high income earners to pay for mass transit expansion. Since Washington state law doesn't currently allow an income tax, that would require a much bigger conversation at the state level.
In the meantime, she says: "The cuts to Metro will be devastating, and we are completely opposed to [them]. We have to do everything we can to ensure that the cuts don’t see the light of day—that much is clear. However, I reject this one-dimensional conversation. If it had been true that Metro was in crisis today for the first time and this was our first conversation about having a regressive tax to save Metro, that would be an entirely different thing. But we are in a situation where Metro is in chronic crisis, because it has a chronic funding problem.
"In a state that has the most regressive tax system [in the nation], my job is to say, let’s look at potential options. And maybe the timeline does not allow those potential options to be put in place in time, in which case we have to go with what we have. But I don’t think that it is correct to not talk about that. This is the time to be talking about it now, because the next time Metro is in crisis, we should make sure that we already progressive source of funding in place."
The Metro-saving measure will be on the countywide ballot on April 22; in addition to funding $80 million in Metro service, the proposal provides $50 million to operate and maintain King County roads.