A car registration tab is shown on a vehicle parked at the Capitol on Feb. 12 in Olympia. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

A car registration tab is shown on a vehicle parked at the Capitol on Feb. 12 in Olympia. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

High court weighs legality of voter-approved car tab measure

Foes of Initiative 976 argue it violates the Constitution and should be tossed out.

OLYMPIA — The fate of Initiative 976 is in the hands of the state Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, justices seemed skeptical the measure to lower car tab fees passed by voters in Snohomish County and across the state eight months ago passes constitutional muster.

In an hour-long hearing, they pressed attorneys for the state, openly concerned whether the measure’s title misled voters and its content covered too many subjects.

At one point the conversation shifted to 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 will continue to be collected.

Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud asked Alan Copsey, a lawyer for the state, whether such wording fooled voters.

Copsey said the notion of $30 car tabs has been debated for a long time and is synonymous with paying less.

“It is not a promise. It is a political characterization,” he said. “I’ve seen the $30 car tab so often … I know it is a phrase for lowering my vehicle registration.”

David Hackett, a King County deputy prosecutor and attorney for opponents, seized on the comment in his closing rebuttal, noting, “you don’t put political phrases in the title.”

Initiative 976, sponsored by Tim Eyman, passed with 53% of the vote in November 2019. And, like Eyman’s previous car tab measures, landed in court quickly.

The measure, if upheld, seeks to limit the annual vehicle registration fee at $30 and axe car tab charges levied by local transportation districts in Everett, Lynnwood and 60 other cities.

It also would slash the motor vehicle excise tax collected by Sound Transit, a pivotal source of revenue to carry out its voter-approved expansion known as ST3. The initiative directs the regional transit authority to retire, refinance or defease some of its outstanding construction bonds and to switch to using vehicle values in Kelley Blue Book when calculating its excise tax.

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

Earlier this year, they failed to convince a King County Superior Court judge who ruled against many of their arguments. That set the stage for the state high court to settle the questions.

On Tuesday, Hackett and Matt Segal of the Pacifica Law Group, argued the initiative’s constitutional infirmities begin with a flawed ballot title that misled voters by not making clear that its passage would repeal certain voter-backed transportation levies. And the title also failed to mention key pieces such as those dealing with Sound Transit.

Another big problem, they argued, is the initiative tackled multiple subjects and the state Constitution limits initiatives to one topic. Again, Sound Transit’s inclusion is improper as it is a regional entity. Allowing voters around the state to direct it to take certain actions is wrong, they said.

The initiative “violates so many provisions of our Constitution it cannot be upheld,” Hackett told justices.

Copsey, in defending the initiative, said a ballot title is limited in its word count and cannot cite every potentiality. It is intended to give voters a broad understanding and if a voter wants more they’ll take a deeper look, he said.

In this case, he said, it is “an accurate representation of what it does. What they’re asking for is a list of the consequences.”

And, he contended the measure comports with the single-subject rule because all the matters — limits on car tabs, local fees, vehicle excise tax — are “related to one another.”

Eyman, who is running for governor as a Republican, gathered with supporters outside the Temple of Justice ahead of the hearing — which was conducted by video conferencing.

Reached after the hearing, he said, “We were careful this time to make sure we got it right.”

He pointed out King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson heard the same arguments and concluded most of the initiative should take effect.

“Are there really nine justices to the left of Marshall Ferguson?” he said.

Andrew Villeneuve, executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, applauded Hackett and Segal for exposing the measure’s legal weaknesses.

“They came prepared with good arguments that withstood critical questioning by the justices, while the attorneys for the defendants were unable to offer satisfactory responses when their arguments were tested,” he said. “If the Court follows precedent, I-976 will be struck down in a few months.”

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

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

A big decision for Boeing’s next CEO: Is it time for a new plane?

As Boeing faces increased competition from Airbus, the company is expected to appoint a new CEO by the end of the year.

A Mukilteo Speedway sign hangs at an intersection along the road in Mukilteo. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Mukilteo Speedway name change is off to a bumpy start

The city’s initial crack at renaming the main drag got over 1,500 responses. Most want to keep the name.

Two workers walk past a train following a press event at the Lynnwood City Center Link Station on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Lynnwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Trains up and running on Lynnwood Link — but no passengers quite yet

Officials held an event at the Lynnwood station announcing the start of “pre-revenue” service. Passengers still have to wait till August.

Nedra Vranish, left, and Karen Thordarson, right browse colorful glass flowers at Fuse4U during Sorticulture on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
A promenade through Everett’s popular Sorticulture garden festival

Check out a gallery of the festival’s first day.

Left to right, Everett Pride board members Ashley Turner, Bryce Laake, and Kevin Daniels pose for a photo at South Fork Bakery in Everett, Washington on Sunday, May 26, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Second Everett Pride aims for even bigger rainbow of festivities

Organizers estimated about 3,000 people attended the first block party in Everett. This year, they’re aiming for 10,000.

School board members listen to public comment during a Marysville School Board meeting on Monday, June 3, 2024 in Marysville, Washington. Rinehardt is seated third from left. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Marysville school board president resigns amid turmoil

Wade Rinehardt’s resignation, announced at Monday’s school board meeting, continues a string of tumultuous news in the district.

A BNSF train crosses Grove St/72nd St, NE in Marysville, Washington on March 17, 2022. Marysville recently got funding for design work for an overcrossing at the intersection. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
BNSF owes nearly $400M to Washington tribe, judge rules

A federal judge ruled last year that the railroad trespassed as it sent trains carrying crude oil through the Swinomish Reservation.

The I-5, Highway 529 and the BNSF railroad bridges cross over Union Slough as the main roadways for north and southbound traffic between Everett and Marysville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Highway 529 squeeze starts now between Everett, Marysville

Following a full closure for a night, starting late Sunday, Highway 529 will slim down to two lanes for months near the Snohomish River Bridge.

Everett Housing Authority is asking for city approval for its proposed development of 16 acres of land currently occupied by the vacant Baker Heights public housing development on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022, in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett inches closer to Park District affordable housing plan

Building heights — originally proposed at 15 stories tall — could be locked in with council approval in July.

The intersection of Larch Way, Logan Road and Locust Way on Wednesday, March 27, 2024 in Alderwood Manor, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Roundabout project to shut down major Bothell intersection for months

The $4.5 million project will rebuild the four-way stop at Larch and Locust ways. The detour will stretch for miles.

State Sen. Mark Mullet, left, and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, right, are both running as Democrats for governor in 2024. (Photos courtesy of Mullet and Ferguson campaigns)
Rival Democrats spar over fundraising in Washington governor’s race

Mark Mullet is questioning Bob Ferguson’s campaign finance connections with the state party. Ferguson says the claims are baseless.

A log truck rolled over into power lines on Monday, June 17, in Darrington. (Photo provided by Alexis Monical)
Log truck rolls into utility lines in Darrington, knocking out power

The truck rolled over Monday morning at the intersection of Highway 530 and Fullerton Avenue. About 750 addresses were without power.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.