The state Supreme Court will decide the fate of Initiative 976 sponsored by Tim Eyman, following oral arguments at a June 30 hearing and after legislative proposals to codify the initiative into state law failed during this year’s session.
The ruling could have significant financial consequences for transit agencies such as Sound Transit that rely on motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) revenue.
The lawsuit, filed by a variety of regional governments and transit associations, argues that I-976 violates the state Constitution, specifically Article 2 Section 19’s single subject clause requirement.
Plaintiff attorney Matthew Segal told the justices that the initiative also engages in “logrolling and misrepresentation.”
Under I-976, license fees for vehicles are limited to $30, except for charges approved by voters. It also requires that the MVET use the Kelley Blue Book to determine a vehicle’s value. Additionally, the initiative repealed Sound Transit’s authority to impose MVETs.
The initiative was approved by voters 53-47 in November. A lawsuit was promptly filed in King County Superior Court which temporarily halted its implementation. While the Washington State Department of Transportation delayed numerous highway projects, many of which were not funded by MVET revenue, state lawmakers introduced three legislative bills earlier this year to codify all or parts of I-976, but none passed.
The ballot title written by State Attorney General Bob Ferguson read as follows:
“Initiative Measure No. 976 concerns motor vehicle taxes and fees.
This measure would repeal, reduce, or remove authority to impose certain vehicle taxes and fees; limit annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30, except voter-approved charges; and base vehicle taxes on Kelley Blue Book value. Should this measure be enacted into law?”
While defense attorney Stephen Pidgeon said “the initiative itself is quite concise and accurate and not misleading in any respect,” Segal disagreed, saying: “the ballot title must tell the voters what the initiative does,” which he said I-976 fails to do.
Though commonly referred to as the $30 car tab initiative, Segal said that “is not accurate. Nobody will pay less than $43. Some people will pay much more than that.”
Deputy State Attorney General Alan Copsey argued that “if we’re going to speculate about what voters knew or thought they were getting with this initiative, then it’s equally fair to speculate that they’ve seen the phrase ‘$30 car tab’ promoted so often over the last 20 years that they understand that it really is a political phrase. It’s like promising a chicken in every pot; it’s not a promise or a literal description of the initiative, it’s a political characterization.”
However, plaintiff attorney David Hackett said “you don’t put political phrases in the ballot title.”
Justice Sheryl McCloud made a similar remark, telling Copsey: “I actually think that’s a problem for you.”
Remarks by other justices didn’t seem favorable to I-976. At one point, Justice Steven Gonzalez told the defense counsel: “I want to know what the policy actually is. I’m having a hard time discerning it.”
Segal argued further that a section of I-976 directing Sound Transit to retire bonds dependent on repealed MVET revenue is the “most significant violation” of the state constitution. Incidentally, Sound Transit is not among the plaintiffs in the suit.
Copsey countered by saying that section has bonds retired only if the bonds themselves permit it. “How Sound Transit responds to I-976 cannot by itself create a separate subject. If it did it, the effect of that would be to allow Sound Transit to unilaterally make I-976 unconstitutional. It’s the court’s role to determine constitutionality, not Sound Transit.”
There is no set date for the court’s decision in this case.