Vehicle owners are receiving December car-tab renewal notices five to six weeks late, because the state Department of Licensing (DOL) delayed sending them out while the dust settled around tax-cutting Initiative 976, approved by voters Nov. 5.

Drivers, however, have no time to procrastinate on the DOL’s annual letter this month. Some people might get their bills even after the exact December date that their tabs are technically supposed to be affixed to their rear license plates. For instance, a Traffic Lab reporter received his DOL notice on Saturday, Dec. 21, for a renewal date of Tuesday, Dec. 24. In some cases, the notices would leave little or no time if a car is required to undergo an emissions test.

What if your new tabs arrive past the due date, or more conspicuously, after Dec. 31 when a law enforcement officer can immediately see they’re expired?

“We have briefed troopers of the issue with DOL, so we’re confident that troopers will use appropriate discretion,” said Washington State Patrol Sgt. Darren Wright.

About 525,600 owners are mailed December renewal notices, while 43,000 are notified by email only and received their December updates already, said Christine Anthony, DOL spokeswoman.

December’s notices contain a pink slip that urges people to beat their deadlines by renewing online at or at a neighborhood licensing office, instead of mailing a payment to county offices and waiting for tabs to be mailed back.


The DOL would normally mail December notices in early November, but the I-976 measure was approaching. The measure proposed to slash car-tab fees statewide to $30, while repealing local fees that range from $20 in many cities for street maintenance, to $80 in Seattle that pays mainly for more-frequent or discounted transit. After voters approved the initiative, DOL waited to see if courts would intervene. A King County judge issued an injunction to halt the tax cut in late November, followed by an order Dec. 4 by the Washington Supreme Court that puts I-976 on hold, pending weeks or months of in-depth hearings.

“If we had sent those out and had an incorrect amount, that was going to cause a lot of rework for us and headaches for customers,” Anthony said.

After that, she said, the agency chose to send January notices on a normal cycle — before the stalled December notices — so that only one month’s schedule will be fouled up.

State agencies emphasize that renewal letters are “courtesy notices,” and vehicle owners are responsible for learning their renewal dates and purchasing new tabs. However, as a practical matter, many people wouldn’t know how much to pay and where, unless they remembered to take their own inquiries online.

I-976 also purported to slash Sound Transit’s car-tab tax of $110 per $10,000 of an inflated vehicle value, but the regional agency continues to collect full rates. Another new state fee of $75 on hybrid and electric cars also is unaffected, because lawmakers passed it after initiative sponsor Tim Eyman filed I-976.

Whether future court rulings will cause any car-tab money paid since Dec. 5 to be refunded, and how, remains an open question.