Although Initiative 976 won approval from 53% of state voters, a lawsuit makes a compelling argument the fee-slashing proposition went on the ballot with deep structural flaws. Washington’s courts have the responsibility to save the state’s electorate from sledgehammer lawmaking and knock down this poorly constructed Tim Eyman-sponsored initiative.
The voters approved I-976 despite the threat that it would trigger deep and painful cuts to some transportation projects. The lure of cold cash, in the form of hundreds of dollars saved from household budgets via a $30 limitation to car tab renewal fees, was too great. In the bargain, transportation budgets statewide face losses calculated at more than $7 billion over the coming decade: $3.5 billion from state government, nearly $600 million from local transportation jurisdictions and possibly $3.2 billion or more from Sound Transit. The latter will keep collecting fees to pay off existing bonds, as permitted by law.
Because some cuts would begin the day I-976 goes into effect — Dec. 5 — the courts must not delay in addressing the initiative’s deficiencies.
On Tuesday, a King County judge will consider an injunction against I-976 as part of a Seattle lawsuit to overturn the initiative. If history is any indicator, Eyman’s initiative likely will not stand up to judicial scrutiny.
The state Attorney General’s office, which is obliged to defend I-976 in court, reports that the only successful Eyman-sponsored initiatives that remained on the books as written were the two that didn’t provoke lawsuits: I-200, banning affirmative action, and I-900, requiring governmental performance audits.
Voters also have approved nine Eyman initiatives before I-976 that sought to reduce state authority to collect taxes or fees. All nine failed under judicial scrutiny, with the Supreme Court either striking parts of them or throwing them out entirely.
I-976 could become Eyman’s 10th washout, even as the prolific initiative sponsor, facing court sanctions over campaign financing issues, talks up a run for governor. The I-976 lawsuit filed by plaintiffs including Seattle, King County, rural Garfield County and a transit-dependent man with cerebral palsy, points out several problems.
First, I-976 slashed multiple revenue sources for transportation spending. It’s called “logrolling” to pass legislation that addresses multiple subjects, and the state constitution explicitly forbids it. Years ago, Eyman’s I-695 and I-722 were tossed for this very reason. Yet I-976 simultaneously removes various state car-tab fees, repeals local governments’ power to impose fees, imposes a new Kelley Blue Book valuation requirement and orders Sound Transit to pursue early payoff of existing bonds.
Another flaw is that the measure made a false claim on the ballot that went to all 4.5 million registered Washington voters. The text Eyman reviewed for the measure said I-976 would “limit annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30, except voter-approved charges.” However, on the 10th page of I-976, the initiative repeals the state law that empowers local governments to impose car tab fees at all.
As clear as these deficiencies are, courts should take decisive action quickly to limit the harm from the initiative. Already, in response to I-976 passing, lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee are trimming their plans to build badly needed infrastructure.
If I-976 is thrown out before the Legislature adjourns at the end of the 60-day session that starts in January, state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said action can be taken to restore funding for transportation projects cut because of the initiative.
The Supreme Court should be prepared to meet this goal and deliberate with urgency.
Additionally, lawmakers must prepare an intelligent response that acknowledges the potent voter dissatisfaction I-976 tapped into and make car-tab fees reasonable without repeating Eyman’s broad and destructive infrastructure cuts.
CORRECTION: This editorial, originally published Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, was corrected Monday, Nov. 25. It originally omitted the full name and title of state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.