Seattle and other government agencies will argue that Initiative 976 to cut car-tab taxes violates the state Constitution in several ways, including by involving more than one subject and misleading voters about the true effects of the measure, according to a complaint the city of Seattle, King County, Port of Seattle and several other groups filed Wednesday.
“As with prior initiatives by the same sponsor, I-976 is a poorly drafted hodge-podge that violates multiple provisions of the Constitution,” the groups wrote in their complaint.
The filing offers the first detailed look at how politicians will attempt to stave off the measure sponsored by longtime anti-tax activist Tim Eyman. Voters statewide approved the measure in last week’s election.
The groups plan to file a separate request Thursday asking a judge to stop the initiative from taking effect, according to King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office.
Eyman called the suit a “slap in the face” to voters.
I-976 aims to lower many car-tab costs to $30, repeal city authority to charge local car-tab fees and roll back Sound Transit car-tab taxes. If the measure takes effect in full, it would cut about $4 billion in state, local and Sound Transit funding for transportation projects over the next six years, according to state estimates.
In the complaint, Seattle, King County and the other plaintiffs argue I-976 violates a rule in the state Constitution that initiatives must deal with a single subject and that its title did not accurately convey the full reach of the initiative.
The initiative also improperly “subjects local issues to a statewide vote and overrides the results of a local election,” they claim.
Eyman often urges politicians to “let the voters decide” about taxes. Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes say they are representing Seattle-area voters by challenging I-976.
The initiative failed in King County with about 59% of people voting no as of the latest available results. Statewide, the initiative is passing with about 53% of the vote.
Seattle also received voter approval for some of its car-tab fees.
The initiative would do away with Seattle’s $80 car-tab fee, which includes $20 to fund maintenance like pothole repair and $60 to fund bus service and transit passes. Voters approved the $60 portion of the fee, along with a .1% sales tax increase, in 2014 after a countywide roads-and-transit measure failed and Metro faced possible service cuts. (The sales tax could remain in place under the initiative.)
Seattle expected to get about $33 million from car-tab fees next year. Repealing the fees “will result in drastic cuts in a variety of critical areas,” the complaint says.
About 60 cities across the state use local car tabs, often to fund basic maintenance like pothole repair. Most of those fees are imposed by city councils rather than public votes.
Although I-976’s ballot title claimed the measure would limit car-tab fees “except voter-approved charges,” the initiative would leave cities with no authority to charge those fees, whether voter-approved or not, the complaint says.
If the request to halt the law is successful, it’s unclear how soon a judge may issue such an order. In 2002, local governments won a preliminary injunction a week after requesting it, while the legal arguments played out. Most of I-976 is set to take effect Dec. 5.
Eyman defended I-976 last week, as Durkan and Holmes announced their plans to sue, saying it is “completely untenable to have one city and one set of elected officials making a decision for everybody in the state.”
Among the other plaintiffs in the newly filed case are the political arm of a union representing transit employees and the Garfield County Transportation Authority, which provides transit in the smallest county in the state, according to the complaint.
Another plaintiff, Michael Rogers, uses a wheelchair and relies on transit. I-976 “will eliminate critical funding for the services on which Mr. Rogers relies for basic mobility in his daily life,” the complaint says.
Throughout his campaign for the initiative, Eyman focused on the way Sound Transit charges car-tab taxes. Those taxes are paid by voters in portions of King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. The agency uses a formula that overvalues many vehicles compared to the commonly used Kelley Blue Book.
The lawsuit is “a slap in the face to the people who clearly oppose these dishonest vehicle taxes,” Eyman said in an email Wednesday.
Eyman faces a long-running campaign-finance lawsuit brought by the state Attorney General’s Office. That office will also be tasked with defending I-976.
Eyman has called on Attorney General Bob Ferguson to recuse his office from the I-976 case, but Ferguson has defended his office.
The initiative has thrown state and local transportation budgets into question.
Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday his office is still considering how to address funding cuts if the initiative takes effect. “We’re looking at opportunities to plug some of the more grievous safety-related holes in the budget,” Inslee said.
Seattle Times staff reporter Joseph O’Sullivan contributed to this story.