The Seattle Times argues (again) against a Seattle-area tax proposal—this one to prevent cuts of up to* 17 percent to King County Metro transit service. The proposal, on the ballot April 22, would impose a $60 vehicle license fee and a 0.1-cent sales-tax increase.
The Times' claims are, essentially, twofold: First, they argue that Metro spends too much money and needs to get its costs in line.
That claim is based on the anti-union notion that drivers make too much money, "to the point that Metro had the third-highest-paid drivers in the country," and that Metro should "rein in" costs before asking voters for more funding.
As we've documented, the way the Times and other Metro funding opponents are calculating Metro expenditures is highly misleading: It ignores, for example, the fact that those expenditures also include the cost of operating service for other transit agencies, such as Sound Transit, which reimburse the county for those costs. (Calling Metro profligate also ignores the fact that sales taxes, on which Metro relies for most of its funding, plummeted during the recession.)
Additionally: The average driver salary at Metro is around $50,000 a year, according to Move King County Now. That, I'm willing to guess, is somewhat less than the members of the Seattle Times editorial board would consider a massive wage. More to the point, it's less than the median household income in King County, which, as of this year, hovered just below $72,000—hardly a lavish use of limited public dollars.
The most regressive action King County could take would be to eliminate 17 percent of its bus service. Moreover, Metro actually has cut its costs—implementing furloughs and hiring freezes and cutting more than 100 positions since 2009. That's one reason the state legislature granted King County—alone among all counties in the state—the right to impose a two-year $20 vehicle license fee to preserve service through 2013.
Their second argument: If voters raise taxes to prevent massive transit cuts, they may vote against other taxes that are more important. "Tax fatigue could jeopardize crucial investments such as public prekindergarten," they argue.
While we look forward to the Times' input on whether voters should approve or reject a new tax to pay for universal prekindergarten (so far, they're zero for two on this year's tax proposals), the "tax fatigue" argument is both tired and incorrect. Voters in King County have indicated again and again that they understand the need for basic services like mobility, libraries, parks, and education.
Those priorities aren't in conflict; they work together. It's pretty hard to get to school or the library or your neighborhood park if you don't have transportation to get there.
No, our sales-tax-reliant transit funding scheme isn't ideal. But it's the system we have. And when the state legislature refuses to provide other funding options, the solution isn't for voters to throw up their hands and say "I guess we just won't fund transit"; the solution is to choose the least-bad option, which is funding transit by what is inarguably a regressive and unfair tax—and hope the legislature can agree on a less objectionable solution.
* "Up to," for the angry anti-Metro commenters, could mean cuts of less than 17 percent—but it's not as if 15 percent service cuts are acceptable either.