A King County judge has largely upheld Initiative 976, the voter-approved measure to cut car-tab taxes. But the measure will remain on hold and the judge’s decision is likely to be appealed.
King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson rejected most of the arguments Seattle, King County and others made that I-976 was unconstitutional, including their claims that it contained too many subjects, wrongly rolled back local taxes with a statewide vote and that the ballot title was misleading.
Ferguson did not rule on two other claims, one about the initiative’s directive that the state use the private company Kelley Blue Book to calculate car-tab taxes and another dealing with the city of Burien, where the city has sold bonds to be paid back with car-tab tax revenue.
Because his ruling “does not dispose of all” the claims by King County and others, the initiative will remain on hold, he wrote. Ferguson had previously stopped the initiative from taking effect while the legal fight played out.
Dan Nolte, a spokesman for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, said the city was “disappointed in the judge’s decision. We’re assessing the order and evaluating options for next steps.”
Initiative 976, sponsored by longtime anti-tax activist Tim Eyman, passed with about 53% of the vote statewide in November. A coalition of groups including the Garfield County Transportation Authority, Seattle and King County quickly sued, claiming the measure was unconstitutional and that the ballot title voters saw misled them about what the initiative would do.
I-976 would lower some state vehicle registration fees, strip local governments’ authority to impose their own car-tab fees and attempt to repeal or lower Sound Transit taxes (the agency disputes how the measure’s effects would play out).
State and local governments use car-tab taxes to fund road and transit projects. Vehicle owners in the Puget Sound region pay Sound Transit car-tab taxes to fund light-rail and bus projects. An increase in those taxes and the inflated formula Sound Transit uses to calculate them generated new anger over car-tab costs in recent years that appeared to fuel support for I-976.
In challenging the initiative, King County and others argued the measure violated a requirement that initiatives deal with a single subject and wrongly allowed voters across the state to roll back local taxes, like Seattle’s $80 car-tab fee to fund road projects and bus service. They also argued the ballot title language misled voters about which fees would be repealed and by how much.
The Washington State Attorney General’s Office, which is defending the initiative, countered that the many provisions of I-976 all dealt with vehicle fees and that just as the state can grant taxing authority to cities, the state or statewide voters can also repeal that authority. The ballot title gave voters enough information to prompt them to look deeper for all the details about the measure, the state argued.
Appeals are expected in the I-976 case until a decision is granted by the Washington State Supreme Court. In past years, two other car-tab initiatives sponsored by Eyman have been partially or fully struck down in court. Uncertain of the legal outcome for I-976, state lawmakers say they plan to budget transportation spending this year as if the tax cuts will be upheld.