Car-tab tax cuts once expected to take effect Thursday will remain on hold despite a last-ditch effort from the Washington State Attorney General this week.
The state Supreme Court issued a short order Wednesday evening denying a request from the Attorney General to allow the voter-approved tax cut to go ahead. The Supreme Court’s order means Initiative 976 will not take effect Thursday, but the order is not the final word on the initiative itself. The legal dispute could go on for weeks or months.
The high court’s decision stalls the latest effort from longtime initiative sponsor Tim Eyman and is likely to frustrate Eyman’s backers eager for a break on their vehicle-registration costs. It hands a short-term victory to Seattle and others who have challenged the initiative as unconstitutional.
Voters across Washington last month approved I-976, which attempts to lower many vehicle-registration fees to $30, roll back car-tab taxes that fund Sound Transit and do away with local car-tab fees. Much of the measure was set to take effect Thursday.
Soon after the initiative passed, Seattle, King County, the Garfield County Transportation Authority and a handful of other groups sued, claiming the measure is unconstitutional.
Last week, they successfully won an injunction from a King County Superior Court judge, halting the initiative from taking effect while the lawsuit continues.
The Attorney General’s Office, which defends voter-approved initiatives, filed an emergency motion Monday saying Washington voters’ wishes were being “stymied” by the lower court’s decision.
In denying that request Wednesday, the Supreme Court’s majority offered no legal reasoning in its written decision.
Three justices who dissented called delaying a voter-approved initiative “an extraordinary measure.” The minority said the state would suffer more if the initiative were paused than Seattle and others would if it took effect, including the “potential harm to voters’ confidence in the initiative system and our democratic process as a whole.”
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes celebrated the court’s decision. “The Court’s order rightly maintains the status quo while we have the opportunity to fully present our arguments that this harmful, misleading measure should not take effect,” he said in a statement.
Eyman, who also faces a long-running campaign-finance lawsuit from the Attorney General’s Office, has complained the office is not sufficiently defending the measure.
His allies Tuesday filed their own request to vacate the lower court’s injunction and move the case to the state Supreme Court. The Supreme Court dismissed that request Wednesday.
Eyman is now attempting to intervene in the case in King County Superior Court. In a filing Thursday, he requested that outside counsel “mutually agreed upon” by Eyman and the Attorney General “be appointed to advise, collaborate, and work with the AG in zealously advocating for upholding I-976.”
If I-976 does eventually take effect, drivers across Washington won’t exactly see Eyman’s much-promised “$30 car tabs.” Because of some smaller fees not affected by I-976, the lowest vehicle owners would pay under I-976 is $43.25.
In the Puget Sound region, taxpayers will continue to see higher bills to fund Sound Transit. That agency plans to continue collecting the car-tab taxes it uses to fund light rail, buses and other projects.