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State Supreme Court strikes down $30 car-tab initiative

Justices unanimously agreed that voter-approved Initiative 976 is unconstitutional.

OLYMPIA — A unanimous state Supreme Court on Thursday (Oct. 15) struck down the $30 car-tab initiative passed by voters in 2019.

Justices said Initiative 976 violated provisions of the state Constitution which limit the scope of ballot measures to no more than one topic. Eight of nine justices also concluded the subject of Initiative 976 as described on ballots was unconstitutional because it misled voters.

“The people of our state have the power to propose and approve legislation. When the people act in their legislative capacity, they are, like any other legislative body, bound by constitutional constraints,” wrote Justice Steven Gonzalez for the majority.

The initiative, he continued, “contains more than one subject, and its subject is not accurately expressed in its title. Accordingly, it is unconstitutional.”

The ruling comes nearly a year after 53% of state voters approved Initiative 976, which, like previous car-tab-limiting measures, was the handiwork of serial initiative promoter Tim Eyman. In King County, 40.73% of voters approved the initiative, while 59.27% voted against it.

Voters in South King County cities uniformly approved I-976 in contrast to most Eastside cities and Seattle, which largely rejected it.

Even before the results were final, a coalition of transit agencies and local governments, led by the city of Seattle and King County and including Garfield County’s transit agency, challenged I-976’s legality in court. The Washington State Transit Association, whose members include Sound Transit, Community Transit and Everett Transit, and the Association of Washington Cities, were part of the coalition.

“We knew this initiative had some fairly obvious legal problems from the outset.” said Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes in a statement. “Mr. Eyman has never sponsored an initiative that’s withstood legal challenge, so today’s decision shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. The court rightly recognized that a clearly inaccurate initiative title and log-rolling subjects is unlawful.”

Under state law, the Office of the Attorney General is responsible for defending voter-approved ballot measures against legal challenges. Eyman, Pierce County and others backing the initiative also were allowed to intervene in the initiative’s defense.

“To be candid, we knew this would be a difficult case,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement. “Tim Eyman has never written a successful tax initiative that passed legal muster.

“Tim Eyman will, of course, do what he has done throughout this case — blame everyone but himself,” Ferguson continued. “He will again blame my office for language in the ballot title that he specifically requested to be included in the title, and that was pulled word-for-word from his initiative. He should look in the mirror and apologize to voters for once again sending them an initiative that failed to survive a legal challenge and deliver on its promises.”

The measure sought to limit the annual vehicle registration fee to $30 and axe vehicle-license charges levied by local transportation districts in more than 60 cities.

It also called for slashing the motor vehicle excise tax collected by Sound Transit, a pivotal source of revenue for carrying out voter-approved light-rail expansion known as ST3. And it aimed to force the regional transit authority to retire or refinance some outstanding construction bonds and switch to using vehicle values in Kelley Blue Book when calculating the Sound Transit excise tax on vehicles.

Sound Transit officials contended the wording of the initiative did not affect current bonds. They have said the measure does not limit the agency’s authority to collect the excise tax until the bonds to which the tax is contractually pledged as security are retired.

Justices affirmed that position in their ruling.

Last November, before all the votes had been counted, a coalition of local governments and public transit agencies sued to block Initiative 976 from taking effect.

A lower court, and later the state Supreme Court, ordered the measure not be implemented until resolution of the legal challenge.

At a June hearing, several Supreme Court justices seemed concerned about whether the measure’s title misled voters and the content covered too many subjects.

There were questions about the assertion of the ballot title that the measure would “limit annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30.” In actuality, the lowest fee would be $43.25 because certain charges imposed by the state Department of Licensing were not covered in the initiative and continue to be collected.

State attorneys said the notion of $30 car tabs has been debated for a long time and voters understand it as a political characterization synonymous with paying lower vehicle registration fees.

Opponents countered that the law doesn’t allow for political phrases in ballot titles.

The court ruling can be found online at www.courts.wa.gov. The case is Garfield County Transportation Authority, et al. v. State of WA, et al.

King County Executive Dow Constantine issued the following statement in response:

“Today’s ruling resoundingly rejects this unconstitutional measure, just as the people of King County rejected it at the polls, and we can now move forward to build a transportation system and economy that gives every person the opportunity to create a better future.

“I-976 threatened to reduce or eliminate local and voter-approved funding for public transportation, bridges and roads, and other critical infrastructure and services across our state. It jeopardized nearly $100 million in funding in King County, including Regional Mobility Grant Program awards that fund RapidRide expansion and reliability improvements, and funding for transit serving persons with disabilities.

“At King County, we are gratified to be able to continue to work with local jurisdictions, other transit agencies, and partners to fund safe, sustainable, and equitable mobility for all our residents. Transit and mobility investments will be central to our recovery as we rebuild from the economic devastation from the coronavirus pandemic, and I’m pleased to have this shadow of uncertainty lifted by the Court.”


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