By HUNTER T. GEORGE
OLYMPIA – Washington voters lost the authority to veto all tax and fee increases imposed by the government after a much-anticipated Washington Supreme Court decision Thursday.
But at least they can keep their cheap car tabs.
In an 8-1 decision, the court ruled that Initiative 695 violates the state constitution.
The initiative, organized by Mukilteo watch salesman Tim Eyman and approved by 56 percent of the voters last November, eliminated the value-based motor vehicle excise tax, saving many motorists hundreds of dollars a year, and replaced it with a $30 fee. The initiative also required voter approval of all future tax and fee increases by state and local governments.
The $30 license tab fee survives, however, because the Legislature and Gov. Gary Locke rushed to approve legislation last spring that made the cut permanent.
But Eyman said the initiative was more than a tax cut. The section requiring voter approval of tax and fee increases by state and local governments was designed to prevent lawmakers from replacing the license tab tax with something else.
“Initiative 695 was the biggest tax relief package in state history,” Eyman said. “It made the point that voters ultimately get what they want if they send a message.”
The decision clears the way for a Snohomish County budget proposal that includes increases in surface water management fees charged to homeowners, and more than two dozen development and construction permits.
The plan from Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel doesn’t include a countywide vote on the increases. The budget does, however, call for voter approval of a tenth-of-a-penny sales tax increase to run a new county jail.
“I can’t say that the ruling comes as a complete surprise,” Drewel said.
City officials in several Snohomish County towns said the decision would make little difference in their budget discussions.
Marysville Mayor David Weiser said the prospect of a costly election for a minor increase in tax revenues had led the city to pare back its budget earlier this year. As a result, the new ruling means little for the coming budget sessions, he said.
Gov. Gary Locke, Secretary of State Ralph Munro and other state officials said the voters’ message was received. Locke noted that $30 tabs are permanent, and he predicted that major tax increases by state and local governments will be put to voters.
“The main elements are here to stay, despite the court’s ruling,” Locke said.
The Supreme Court, in a majority opinion written by Justice Barbara Madsen, acknowledged that Washington residents have the right to bypass the Legislature and governor and implement laws through the initiative and referendum processes.
But requiring a public vote on every tax and fee increase would upset the balance of power between lawmakers and citizens, she said.
If carried to its logical conclusion, she added, nearly all areas of legislation could be removed from the Legislature’s authority.
“Such a result would be inconsistent with the representative form of government in this state,” she said.
Eyman and the state, acting on behalf of voters, appealed a March ruling by King County Superior Court Judge Robert Alsdorf, who sided with transit unions and other groups that filed lawsuits last fall challenging the measure.
The high court said the measure’s double-barreled approach to cutting an existing tax and imposing restrictions on future taxes violated a constitutional requirement limiting an initiative to one topic. The rule exists to protect legislators and voters from being forced to approve a measure they oppose in order to win approval of something they support.
The court said the initiative also made an illegal attempt to amend the Washington Constitution and change referendum procedures.
The ruling was a victory for unions, local governments and utility districts that sought to clarify whether the measure required them to ask for voter approval every time they adjust such charges as sewer fees.
Justice Richard Sanders filed the dissent. He criticized the majority for suggesting that voters are “too stupid” to exercise the power the constitution has given them or “so lazy” that they would judge the details of every initiative solely by its title.
“I submit this initiative presents a rationally unified approach to deal with both aspects of the same problem: reducing a tax as well as limiting the prospect that it will be replaced,” Sanders wrote.
“The people have expressed their will that their tax burden be limited. The constitution does not stand in their way, and neither should this court.”
Madsen’s majority opinion was signed by Chief Justice Richard Guy and Justices Phil Talmadge, Charles Smith, Faith Ireland and Bobbe Bridge.
Justices Gerry Alexander and Charles Johnson filed a separate opinion in which they agreed that I-695 was unconstitutional, but said the court should have stopped its analysis after determining that the measure violated the rule limiting an initiative to one subject.
Thursday’s decision won’t have an impact on court elections next month. Guy and Talmadge are retiring, and Alexander and Bridge are unopposed.
The decision in Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 v. State, No. 69433-8, is available on the Web at:
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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