Opinion

Behind the scenes: King County car tab fee | Bob Roegner

In politics, what goes on behind the scenes is always far more interesting than what goes on in public. The recent vote by the King County Council on adding a $20 charge to your car tabs to pay for bus transit is illustrative.

The council voted 7-2 to pass the increase. But the story is more complex than that, and exposed just how difficult re-election politics and public policy can be when intertwined. It also underscored how much politics in Bellevue and on the Eastside have shifted from strongly conservative to more moderate — and why a longtime public official, King County Council member Jane Hague, is fighting for her political life.

As with most governments, King County has been suffering from a drop in revenue that hampers its ability to maintain services. The county has made several budget cuts to try and maintain its level of service, but was still facing additional reductions in bus service.

Many senior citizens, poor and low-paid workers rely on the bus system as a necessary part of their daily lives.

Many can’t afford a fare increase. Adding a short-term two-year $20 fee to taxpayers’ car tabs, as proposed by King County Executive Dow Constantine, emerged as the favored way to keep the service level by the Democratic majority on the council.

Bus riders not only need the service, they also happen to be voters who have willingly shared their views with the county.

With the five Democrats in favor on the nine-member council, the majority could pass the issue and refer it to the voters. But if they could get a sixth vote, they could implement it themselves and bypass the voters. That would save valuable planning time and provide certainty of retaining service, rather than risk an election. In this economic environment, passage by the voters was far from a sure thing. And, isn’t that why they were elected? To make difficult decisions and not just pass the buck to the public?

For many months, the council thought Jane Hague, a Republican from Bellevue, could be the crucial sixth vote. She had testified before the Legislature in favor of granting the county the additional authority, and even though she was conservative on many issues, she did show a moderate side on some issues.

But Hague drew three challengers in her re-election bid, and Democrat Richard Mitchell looked particularly strong. Hague had political baggage leftover from her re-election four years ago that was resurfacing and putting her on the defensive. She seemed to be less likely to provide the critical sixth vote.

The issue got more difficult at hearings throughout the county where citizens showed up to voice their position and raise the political temperature.

The council vote was actually delayed for a month as rumors circulated that one of the Democrats might be having second thoughts. But that seemed to re-solidify, and proponents again were hopeful of Hague’s support.

Hague seemed to be a “no” vote on direct implementation, but a “yes” vote on referring the issue to the voters. But a curious thing happened. Her primary opponents started attacking her from the political “left” as supporting “cuts in transit services.” This wasn’t an accurate portrayal of her position, and usually in Bellevue, the pressure comes from the political “right” to oppose anything that resembles a tax or fee increase. The other two Eastside council members, Reagan Dunn and Kathy Lambert, are conservative on most issues, and Dunn was a strong “no” vote.

Nobody was sure how the vote would go. Many Republicans believed Hague would stay with her caucus and the vote would split 5-4 along party lines, and be referred to the public for a vote.

But after obtaining some concessions from the county executive, Hague and Lambert voted “yes” and the issue passed 7-2.

Many believe Hague had much concern for the people who desperately need this service. Others feel her switch was more calculated.

By voting for the car tabs, as two of her opponents said they would, she was undermining their position and trying to eliminate bus transit service as a political issue. Also, it was a tacit acknowledgment that Bellevue was changing from the rock bed of conservatism to a blend of voters that included many moderates. The Bellevue City Council and state legislative representation have trended in that direction over the past few years.

But as others point out, it is a big gamble. In trying to reach out to new, more moderate voters, Hague may very well have alienated her base conservative supporters.

On primary election night, she was leading her three challengers with 39 percent. That is a low number for a longtime elected official. Election watchers note that her total dipped lower over the next several days of tabulating. This suggests that some late voters may not have supported her vote for the car tab fee. It was a small percentage drop each day, totaling only a little over 1 percent, but it was a consistent erosion.

You’ll pay $20 more for your car tabs. But the bigger story is, will Jane Hague’s gamble pay off in November?

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