Voters were deceived when they were asked to pass Initiative 976 slashing car-tab taxes, a coalition of groups including Seattle and King County argued in court Friday, attempting to defeat a measure they say is riddled with constitutional issues.
“The $30 promise is completely illusory and deceptive,” King County attorney David Hackett told King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson.
Ferguson, who earlier put the measure on hold while the legal fight plays out, said he would issue a ruling next week.
Arguments in court Friday drove to the heart of what voters were thinking when they approved I-976 in November — the third time in two decades they heard a campaign calling for “$30 car tabs” and opted in favor, cutting vehicle registration taxes and throwing transportation spending into question.
Opponents say voters were misled and asked to vote on an initiative that can’t withstand legal scrutiny. The state attorney general, who is defending the measure, says Seattle and others have failed to meet the high bar necessary to undo the voters’ will.
Initiative 976 passed a statewide vote in November. If upheld, it would lower some state vehicle registration fees, repeal additional local fees and attempt to repeal or lower Sound Transit taxes (the agency disputes how that would work). Car-tab taxes are used to fund road and transit projects across Washington.
I-976 was rejected in several Western Washington counties, including King County. In the Sound Transit taxing district, where vehicle owners pay the highest car-tab taxes, a majority opposed I-976, but support for cutting the taxes was higher in areas outside Seattle.
The legal fight over I-976 has stretched on since the election, cast uncertainty on state and local transportation budgets and kept driver frustration over car-tab taxes in the spotlight. With the measure on hold, vehicle owners continue to pay higher vehicle registration fees.
Ferguson questioned lawyers on both sides Friday but said he needed time to deliver a ruling because of “complex” legal issues at play.
“The parties and the public deserve a clear explanation from this court,” Ferguson said. “That will take a bit of time, although I understand this issue is very pressing.”
However Ferguson rules, his decision is likely to be appealed.
In arguing the initiative is unconstitutional, Seattle, King County and others have said voters were misled by the ballot title they saw when they voted.
Aided in the courtroom by an extra-large display of the ballot title language voters saw in November, Hackett argued that while the title promised $30 car tabs “except voter-approved charges,” the initiative neither offered a true $30 cap — because other state fees mean the lowest any vehicle owner will pay is slightly over $40 — nor protected taxes previously approved by voters the way an average voter might think.
Seattle for example, charges an $80 car-tab tax that funds road projects and bus service, $60 of which was approved by voters. Cities’ authority to impose those types of fees would be wiped out by I-976.
The ballot title language has been a particular sticking point. The language was written by the Attorney General’s Office, the same office now defending the measure. The office says it pulled the language directly from the initiative.
In defense of I-976, the state argues the title gave voters enough information to know they may want to look further into the details of the measure.
The state says the title voters saw — which mentioned both “vehicle taxes and fees” and “motor-vehicle-license fees” — was actually distinguishing between different charges and so was not misleading. Voters could have reasonably been expected to read that title, wonder about the distinction and be moved to look further into what exactly would be lowered, allowed or repealed, said Deputy Solicitor General Alan Copsey.
“This gives the average voters enough information to put them on notice that something is going on here,” Copsey said.
Ferguson questioned the claims from King County about the ballot title, wondering whether the coalition was asking for too much explicit detail to be included in the brief title voters see on the ballot.
The title “is not meant to be a blueprint of all of the mechanisms and all of the consequences of the initiative,” Ferguson said.
But he also pressed the state on whether the promise of $30 car tabs was misleading since other fees will remain in place.
“$30 car tabs is a political phrase designed as a shorthand for what this initiative does,” Copsey said in response.
Opponents also argue I-976 covered too many subjects and wrongly allowed voters across the state to strip away taxes that cities like Seattle have opted to impose on themselves.
The state dismissed those claims, saying taxes granted by the state can be taken away by the state and therefore by voters through initiatives.
The initiative’s many changes to vehicle fees had a similar purpose and therefore were allowed, the state argued.
“All these sections worked together achieve a common end and that is to lower costs [for vehicle owners],” Copsey said.
The initiative and lawsuit have led lawmakers in Olympia to say they will write a transportation budget accounting for cuts, in case the measure is upheld.
The fight has also kept a spotlight on Tim Eyman, a longtime anti-tax activist. Eyman called it “maddening to have governments suing the voters in order to be able to protect us from our vote.”
Since the November election, Eyman has launched a campaign for governor and claimed the state was botching its defense of his initiative. He and the state attorney general are at odds in two other legal fights, one alleging Eyman violated campaign-finance laws and another dealing with Eyman’s bankruptcy.
Eyman appeared in court Friday, wearing stickers on either side of his suit jacket advertising $30 car tabs.