When I pulled out my ballot to vote last week, I had already decided to vote against Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976, which ended up passing.
I don’t feel strongly about car tabs either pro or con. But I do about transit. Seattle is woefully lacking in rapid mass transit, like any real city ought to have. I’m against pretty much anything that delays or monkey wrenches with voter-approved transit projects.
So I was surprised when I got to that section of my ballot, because it sure seemed to imply that voter-approved projects were exempt from the tax-slashing.
The ballot said the measure would repeal the “authority to impose certain vehicle taxes and fees,” thereby limiting “annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30, except voter-approved charges” (emphasis added by me).
I’d heard of course that this measure would slash tens of thousands of voter-approved bus hours in Seattle, and would also gut Sound Transit’s voter-approved light-rail project “like a pig,” as Eyman himself put it. So the ballot didn’t seem right.
Now that the dust is settling from the vote and the lawsuits are rising, it turns out the ballot wasn’t right. Or at least it was extremely misleading.
The plain language of the phrase “except voter-approved charges,” in the context of a measure to cut car tabs, could mean only one of two things: That the vote wouldn’t affect existing voter-approved car-tab fees. Or that voters would be able to raise car tabs in the future if they wanted to.
But I-976 both repeals voter-approved car tabs and also blocks voters from considering them going ahead.
I went to the source, the man who wrote the measure, and asked him: What did the ballot mean?
Eyman said the clear intent of his measure is to get rid of all car taxes and fees above $30, including voter-approved ones.
He confirmed that it cancels Seattle’s $60 voter-approved car tab that pays for increased bus service, and that it also bars the city from asking voters to approve any car fees in the future. Pending Sound Transit changing or retiring any bonds backed by car-tax funds, I-976 also would repeal that agency’s authority to collect voter-approved car taxes, Eyman said.
“I didn’t write the ballot title,” he said. “The attorney general’s office did. The attorney general chose to describe it that way.”
This is true — initiative sponsors don’t write the description that voters see on their ballots.
Eyman said his belief is the ballot title points to the future — that going forward, there’s always a possibility the state Legislature could change the law and allow voters to weigh in again and pass higher tabs.
“We can’t stop the Legislature from recreating higher car tabs or taxes in the future,” he said. “We’re saying that if the Legislature then decides they want to try and recreate these hated, radioactive, loathed vehicle taxes, then do it honestly and ask our permission.”
This is a stretch. Of course the state Legislature can change the law in the future — they don’t call them “lawmakers” for nothing. They could decide next session to jack all car-tab fees to five grand if they had enough votes. That the ballot apparently included a nod to some precognitive speculative scenario is bizarre.
In the here and now, the ballot “claimed residents can vote locally to raise their car-tab fees, when the initiative language prohibits exactly that,” said Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes. The city is arguing in court filings that this is reason enough to toss out the new law.
Tossing out the whole thing seems wrong, too. People in parts of the state who don’t have voter-approved car tabs ought to still get the $30 tabs they voted for, because that’s democracy.
But where’s the democracy for Seattle? Our car-tabs-for-buses plan passed in 2014 by a 25-percentage-point margin, so it’s hardly controversial. Yet here we have a new measure, that we didn’t vote for, that not only cancels our bus funds, but bars us from holding a new car-tab vote to recover them, while falsely implying right on voters’ ballots that we can.
Eyman’s committee that pushed this mess of restrictions was named … Voters Want More Choices.
Like I said at the top, I just want the transit. So maybe Seattle will have to come up with a different way to pay for that.
But this whole thing is a maddening contortion of democracy. Eyman’s catchy red T-shirts say “Let The Voters Decide.” But it doesn’t seem he really means it.