King County Judge Marshall Ferguson listens as Alan Copsey, an associate solicitor general of the state of Washington, speaks during a King County Superior Court hearing on Tuesday in Seattle. Lawyers for cities and counties across Washington state were in court to ask Ferguson to block Tim Eyman’s $30 I-976 car tab measure from taking effect. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

King County Judge Marshall Ferguson listens as Alan Copsey, an associate solicitor general of the state of Washington, speaks during a King County Superior Court hearing on Tuesday in Seattle. Lawyers for cities and counties across Washington state were in court to ask Ferguson to block Tim Eyman’s $30 I-976 car tab measure from taking effect. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

For now, your car-tab costs are not going down

A state Supreme Court ruling keeps Initiative 976 on hold as a lawsuit wends its way through the courts.

OLYMPIA — Car-tab costs are not going down any time soon after the state Supreme Court upheld an injunction preventing Initiative 976 from taking effect this week.

A majority of justices on Wednesday denied Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s emergency motion for a stay, leaving the ballot measure — approved by 53% of voters — on hold until a lawsuit challenging its legality is resolved.

At this point, the King County Superior Court trial date is Nov. 9, 2020.

Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst signed the order, which did not elaborate on the majority’s reasoning.

Three justices strongly dissented.

“Delaying the effective date of a law enacted by initiative is an extraordinary measure and it is debatable whether the challengers have shown a likelihood of success on their constitutional challenges to the initiative,” wrote Justices Sandra Owens, Debra Stephens and Sheryl McCloud.

“While the challengers point to significant losses in revenue and service that could result from a stay and the State highlights the cost of any necessary taxpayer refunds, these monetary injuries are not the only ones that matter,” they wrote.

“Also important is the potential harm to voters’ confidence in the initiative system and our democratic process as a whole. The ordinary process when an initiative is passed by the voters is that it becomes effective on the designated date and is presumptively valid until and unless a court declares it unconstitutional,” they wrote.

Initiative 976 passed with 58.2% support in Snohomish County in the Nov. 5 election.

It caps the annual registration fees for most passenger vehicles at $30 and axes license fees levied by transportation benefit districts that exist in Everett, Lynnwood and 60 other cities. It also slashes the motor vehicle excise tax collected by Sound Transit, which is used to fund planned light rail expansion.

A lawsuit filed by a coalition of cities, counties and public transit agencies contends it is unconstitutional.

Opponents’ attorneys, in arguing for the injunction, cited “substantial concerns” that the initiative’s description on the ballot was misleading and that it violated the single-subject rule for initiatives laid out in the state Constitution. And they contended the immediate loss of revenue would substantially harm road maintenance and transit services.

Among the plaintiffs are Seattle; King County; the Washington State Transit Association, whose members include Sound Transit and Community Transit; and the Association of Washington Cities.

King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson granted the preliminary injunction Nov. 27. He did not rule on the original lawsuit.

Initiative sponsor Tim Eyman responded to the high court’s decision with another round of sharp criticism of the attorney general’s handling of the case and a renewal of his call for hiring counsel. On Thursday, he filed a motion to intervene in the case.

Eyman, who has said he is running for governor, is accused of committing numerous campaign finance violations in a civil suit filed by Ferguson in 2017. That case is set for trial next summer.

Ferguson declined to comment on the Supreme Court’s order.

He did respond to Eyman.

“We get it — he’s looking for headlines and he doesn’t want to take the blame if another initiative he drafted is overturned,” Ferguson said in a statement. “Consequently, it is clear he will criticize our office no matter what we do.”

Separately Wednesday, Franklin County Commissioner Clint Didier came up short in his bid to have the injunction vacated and the case moved directly to the Supreme Court. Everett Attorney Stephen Pidgeon had filed a petition for a writ of mandamus in which he argued the state high court is the only objective tribunal to decide the initiative’s constitutionality. The Supreme Court commissioner dismissed the petition.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos.

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