Pierce Transit tax needs a sunset, not a gerrymander

The News TribuneFebruary 27, 2013 

Pierce Transit has a credibility problem with the citizens who live within its taxing district. It should solve that problem at home, not do an end run through the Legislature.

Twice in the last two years, the transit agency has put a sales tax proposal on the ballot only to see it shot down by voters. In November, the second measure came within a cat’s whisker of success, falling short by barely more than 700 votes.

That tiny margin demonstrated that the agency could win the revenues it needs to prevent a drastic cutback in bus service. But it would have to abandon its insistence that the tax be chiseled into stone in perpetuity.

Had last fall’s measure contained a reasonable sunset clause – requiring a new vote after, say, six years – there’s little question it would have passed.

All is not lost. Pierce Transit’s leaders could still secure passage of a new sales tax by holding the agency accountable through a future vote. But transit supporters are seeking to game the process in Olympia to avoid another reckoning with the district’s electorate.

One particularly bad plan would allow the agency to impose a new sales tax without public approval. We assume that notion is headed nowhere, which is where it belongs.

A more interesting proposal comes from Pierce Transit itself. Under this plan, the Legislature would let the agency create a zone-within-a-district that could vote to tax itself at a higher rate than the rest of the jurisdiction.

Areas where voters supported November’s measure would be gerrymandered into this core, which might consist largely of Tacoma and a few snippets of adjoining cities. Outlying areas, where support was tepid in November, would be left out.

The plan’s ostensible virtue is that it would let select voters buy more transit if they want it. Approval of the additional tax in the gerrymandered zone would preserve service in the urban core of the system, including the Pacific Avenue corridor that extends south to Spanaway.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea if the system were being created from scratch. Given Pierce Transit’s recent history, though, it amounts to an attempt to circumvent two negative verdicts from the electorate.

Although the agency has tightened its expenses in the last few years, it has a record of excessive spending and generous compensation. Voters are rightly suspicious that it will revert to old habits if it can tap into a new stream of guaranteed income.

Pierce Transit ought to do what it should have done after its first measure failed in 2011: Attach an expiration date to the tax, then ask the voters again. It won’t take gerrymandering to persuade them to say yes.

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