By Gene Johnson / Associated Press
SEATTLE — A judge on Wednesday blocked Tim Eyman’s $30 car tab measure from taking effect in Washington state while cities and counties challenge its legality, citing “substantial concerns” that the initiative’s description on the ballot was misleading.
Voters approved Initiative 976 earlier this month. It caps most taxes paid through annual vehicle registration at $30 and largely revokes the authority of state and local governments to add new taxes and fees.
A coalition of cities and transit agencies across the state sued to stop the measure, saying it would eviscerate funds they need to pay for transit and road maintenance. It would cost the state and local governments more than $4 billion in revenue over the next six years, according to the state Office of Financial Management.
Plaintiffs included the city of Seattle; King County; the Washington State Transit Association, whose members include Sound Transit and Community Transit; and the Association of Washington Cities, which includes many Snohomish County cities.
Seattle said it would have to cut 110,000 bus hours. Garfield County said it would have to cut by half the transportation services it provides to help seniors and disabled people get to the grocery store, the doctor and other appointments.
The plaintiffs have noted that the ballot summary said I-976 would “limit annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30, except voter-approved charges.” That suggested to voters that locally approved measures, such as additional license fees passed by Seattle voters to pay for improved bus service and voters’ agreement to fund Seattle-area Sound Transit light rail projects, would survive, they said.
As the full text of the measure shows, however, only fees approved by voters in the future would be allowed, and the authority of local jurisdictions to seek such measures to begin with would also be curtailed.
King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson expressed concern during a hearing Tuesday that language was misleading, and in his order Wednesday he said the plaintiffs were likely to win their case. He ordered Washington state to cease efforts to implement the initiative on Dec. 5, when it was due to take effect, pending further orders.
The judge emphasized that he had not reached a final determination that the measure is unconstitutional, and he said it was not a foregone conclusion that he would strike it down — only that the challengers had made enough of a case to stop its implementation while the legal case proceeds.
He noted that if the state and cities continue to collect the vehicle taxes and fees as they have been, they can later refund that money if the initiative is upheld. But if they stop collecting the money while the case proceeds, there’s no way for them to collect them retroactively.
State Rep. Jake Fey, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said the Legislature is still “in a pickle,” even with the injunction.
He said that because there’s no way they’ll have resolution on the case before the end of the upcoming 60-day legislative session, they’ll have to approach the transportation budget the same as if the law was taking effect. The Department of Transportation on Wednesday released a list of projects not yet started that are to be postponed.
“The consequences would be even worse if we went ahead and started spending as if it hadn’t happened and we find out that the initiative has prevailed,” Fey said.
The chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee is following a similar approach.
Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said he’s not detouring from the approach announced last week to craft a supplemental transportation budget that assumes a loss of revenue as a result of the initiative.
“Yep, that’s what we’re doing. We can’t rely on a temporary stay,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Several Republican senators said this week they will introduce legislation to shift state sales-tax revenue from vehicle purchases into the transportation budget. That money now goes into the general fund and is spent on day-to-day government operations.
Hobbs said it’s not a new idea and wondered why the GOP lawmakers didn’t do it when they had the majority in the Senate.
Eyman did not immediately return a message seeking comment but in an email sent to media and supporters wrote that Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose office is defending the initiative, “failed the voters by sabotaging and undermining I-976 from within.” The chairman of the state Republican Party, Caleb Heimlich, called the decision “a disrespectful and blatant miscarriage of justice towards the voters of Washington state.”
“This is not a final judgment, and this case is far from over,” Ferguson said in an emailed statement. “We will continue working to defend the will of the voters. This case will ultimately wind up before the State Supreme Court.”
During Tuesday’s hearing, Alan Copsey, a lawyer for the state, disagreed that the language was deceptive. He argued that measure descriptions on the ballot are limited to 30 words, so not every effect can be described.
The ballot language said the measure would “repeal, reduce, or remove authority to impose certain vehicle taxes and fees,” and that should have put voters on notice that they needed to read the initiative’s full language if they wanted to know what it did, he said.
The ballot title and summary are supplied by the Attorney General’s Office. In this case, the language was drawn directly from the first section of the initiative.
The initiative’s sponsor, Eyman, is a longtime antitax initiative promoter who recently announced a run for governor. His $30 car tab initiative first passed 20 years ago. It was struck down in court before being enacted by lawmakers. The fees have crept up as lawmakers allowed them and voters in some places approved them.
Eyman also promoted the initiative as a way to undo a car-tab fee hike collected by Sound Transit in the Puget Sound region. The agency uses a method of vehicle valuation that inflates some car values. Voters approved the increase as part of a light-rail expansion package in 2016 for King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. Some drivers experienced car tab sticker shock after the measure was approved and costs soared. One lawsuit over the valuations is before the state’s high court.
The attorney general’s office is typically charged with defending the constitutionality of state laws, but Eyman wants the office recused from the case because Ferguson has sued him over campaign finance issues. Eyman has twice been held in contempt of court for refusing to cooperate with court rules.
Eyman spoke up in court without invitation during Tuesday’s hearing in part to criticize the attorney general’s office, and afterward he confronted state lawyers and accused them of deliberately sabotaging I-976 by not making all the arguments Eyman wanted them to make.
In his statement Wednesday, the attorney general — who is not related to the judge — called that wildly inappropriate.
“It hurt our chances of successfully defending the people’s initiative,” Ferguson said.
AP correspondent Rachel La Corte and Herald reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed from Olympia.