Voters in Seattle will be asked in November whether they want to raise the sales tax to help bail out the local bus system. The exact wording on the ballot likely will not point out that Seattle already has the nation’s highest major-city sales tax.
In case you’re contemplating a visit to Seattle, be aware that the local total sales tax bite right now is 9.5%. That’s above every big city in the country (No. 2, apparently, is Chicago at 9.25%). I say big-city because there are a few tiny places out there with far higher rates. Tops, according to the Tax Foundation, is the 12.725%–one penny for every eight others–charged in Tuba City, Ariz. (population 8,600), which, spider-like, quietly waits to catch unwary tourists en route to the nearby Grand Canyon.
The ballot question here in Seattle is whether to raise the tax by 0.1 percentage point to 9.6%. There’s an interesting back story behind this proposal, and not one that reflects terribly well on Seattle-area officials.
Earlier this year, voters in King County, which includes Seattle, voted down a similar 0.1 point increase. The measure passed within the city but not in the rest of the county, where most of the population is and where antipathy to mass transit is stronger. But it didn’t help that before the vote various Seattle Times editorials accused county officials of exaggerating the financial problems of King County Metro Transit, and having a long history of making false promises. Somewhat surprisingly, the county all but acknowledged this when, just before the vote, they lowered the amount of transit cuts that would be enacted if the sales tax increase failed.
Still, voters collectively called their bluff.
Now the increase is back on the ballot and limited just to Seattle. But amazingly, public officials are still at it. Earlier this week–seemingly worried about the impending vote–they announced they miraculously had just found savings sufficient to reduce the cuts by 25% if the the sales-tax increase passes.
Candor clearly is in short supply. The pro-bus lobby, Yes For Seattle Transit, has a cheery website that does not mention the relative steepness of the existing sales tax or the fact that the local bus fare–$2.25 for non-rush hour travel–is 50% above the national average of $1.50. For some reason the colorful aerial shot of Seattle on the website’s home page contains no buses that I could see.
What’s being played out here is a script I have seen in many of the places I lived before becoming New To Seattle. Voters are allowed to raise their own taxes only on appealing earmark items (such as, two years ago here, public libraries). That way, elected officials presumably elected to make hard choices among competing priorities don’t have to make hard choices among competing priorities.
An in-between round of service cuts is scheduled to take effect near the end of September. I have no doubt that officials will use that as the stick to threaten voters in November. But it wouldn’t be too hard for voters to grab that stick and hit back.