I-976 struck down as panel mulls new transportation taxes

I-976 struck down as panel mulls new transportation taxes
The Washington State Supreme Court has released its opinion ruling against Initiative 976 – doing so the day after a state advisory panel discussed a draft report on potential new transportation taxes. Photo: freepik.com

The release of the Washington State Supreme Court decision striking down Initiative 976 that was approved by voters last November seems appropriately timed – coming the day after a state advisory panel met virtually to discuss a planned report to the legislature on potential new transportation taxes. The meeting underscored the political realities for I-976 supporters who have sought to reduce taxpayer burdens through regional and local multimodal funding.

Considered by some observers to be a public reaction to legislative inaction regarding vehicle valuation for certain motor vehicle excise taxes (MVET), I-976 was approved by voters 53-47 percent, only to be swiftly challenged in King County Superior Court. The initiative limited vehicle license fees to $30, required that the MVET use the Kelley Blue Book to determine a vehicle’s value, and repealed Sound Transit’s MVET authority.

Opponents argued that the initiative violated Article 2 Section 19 of the state constitution requiring a “single subject” clause – an argument the state high court also made in its decision. The court also ruled that the initiative violated another state constitutional requirement concerning subjects-in-title, calling it  “deceptive  and misleading.”

“We construe legislation liberally to avoid a multiple subject problem, but we do not shirk from our responsibility to enforce the constitution’s mandates,” the decision also read. The court opinion further stated that the section referring to Sound Transit’s existing bonds “is not germane” to limiting vehicle taxes and fees.

Had I-976 been upheld, the state Office of Financial Management estimated it would have reduced taxpayer burden to state and local governments by $4.2 billion over the next six years.

Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost wrote in a statement to Lens that “there is one thing today’s ruling didn’t change: the fact voters have repeatedly approved $30 car tabs. We’re told voting and elections matter. Do our elected officials really believe this or will they ignore what voters have demanded for years?”

Rep. Jim Walsh (R-19) wrote in a Facebook post that Governor Jay Inslee should convene a special session to implement I-976 via legislation – something Governor Gary Locke did when voters approved I-635 in 2000, which also reduced car tabs to $30.

“We have a constitutional crisis in this state,” Walsh wrote further. “A handful of partisan judges and statewide elected officials who cozy up to political extremists are defying the will of the people.”

In the meantime, taxpayers can expect a number of new revenue sources to be proposed in January via an upcoming report from the Statewide Transportation Needs Assessment Advisory Panel. The panel is currently working on its draft report to the legislature, which is expected to recommend higher taxes for existing infrastructure as well as transit services. Its phase one report highlighting transportation needs and priorities was released in June, and the panel held its last meeting Oct. 14.

Representing the Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC), San Juan County Councilmember Rick Hughes told colleagues at that meeting:“ (what) I heard in most (panel) discussions…is we need to raise money and we need to do projects. We need to find new money,” adding that the report should convey that “the legislature needs to figure out how to find more money.”

Former State Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-41) agreed, saying an explicit statement in the report would provide “no wiggle room when the legislature starts to work” on what the panel recommended.

“I agree that we could add at the very beginning (of the report) an emphasis that we are supportive of new revenue,” she said. “I think we were so assuming that we were going for that (new revenue) we forgot to make it a powerful statement.”

Also favoring that position is Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Transportation Committee Chair Kirk Vinish, who told colleagues the report should include a minimum level of service gauge to demonstrate “we’re going to need more revenue. That helps make the argument we can’t let the roads crumble – we can’t let bridges fall apart.”

However, Washington State Transit Association Executive Director Justin Leighton said that “the other conversation is the priorities of how we’re going to spend that revenue. What do we need, and then how are we going to fund, rather than let’s find all the money that we can…and then spend it. Taxpayers don’t like that. We have a lot of needs out there – ferries, transit, local roads, county roads, highways, megaprojects. There is more need than any revenue we’re ever going to get away with.”

The advisory panel’s final report is scheduled to be finished by December.

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