As King County continues its legal fight to stop Initiative 976 from cutting car-tab taxes across Washington, Pierce County is heading in the other direction.
The Pierce County Council voted 4-3 Tuesday to attempt to join the lawsuit regarding I-976 on the side of the state in defense of the measure. I-976 won about 66% of the vote in Pierce County, compared to about 40.5% in King County.
“It’s our job, I believe, as a council and elected officials to defend what the people in Pierce County have in fact said. I think it’s an outrage, for instance, you’d have any challenge to this at all,” said Pierce County Councilmember Pam Roach. “The voters have spoken.”
The motion approved by the council directs the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney to request to intervene as a defendant in the case. A King County Superior Court judge will determine whether Pierce County is allowed to join the case.
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.
Seattle, King County, the Garfield County Transportation Authority and a handful of other groups sued soon after the election and persuaded a King County judge to stop the measure from taking effect on Dec. 5.
Longtime anti-tax activist Tim Eyman sponsored the initiative and attended the Pierce County meeting Tuesday.
As is standard with voter-approved measures, the Washington State Attorney General’s Office is leading the defense of I-976. But the same office has a long-running campaign finance lawsuit against Eyman, and Eyman has claimed the office is botching the case.
Pierce County Councilmember Derek Young questioned spending Pierce County money on a defense already being mounted by the state, saying Pierce County is “not a wealthy county.”
“It seems to be unprecedented that a county would intervene on behalf of the state and it’s not even clear to me our intervention would be welcome,” Young said.
In response to questions from a council member Tuesday, Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mary Robnett said the county would likely be “working separately but on the same side” as the Attorney General. Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier asked Robnett last week to begin “preliminary” research on joining the case.
Dammeier is also a member of the Sound Transit board. The portion of Pierce County included in Sound Transit’s taxing district rejected the agency’s $54 billion Sound Transit 3 package in 2016. The package increased car-tab taxes and other taxes to fund new rail and bus projects.
The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.
It’s unclear when vehicle owners will have a final answer on their car-tab taxes. However a King County judge rules, the case is likely to be appealed to a higher court and the legal fight could drag on.
Meanwhile, Sound Transit plans to continue collecting car-tab taxes in the Puget Sound region, despite the initiative. Those taxes are calculated using a formula that overvalues many vehicles compared to the commonly used Kelley Blue Book, drawing outrage from some drivers and Republicans in the Washington State Legislature.
I-976 directed Sound Transit to retire those bonds or pay them off early, but the agency claims the initiative didn’t set a deadline for doing so.