Saying Initiative 976 would cause “immediate and irreparable injuries to our city,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced plans Thursday to file a joint lawsuit with King County that seeks to stop the tax-cutting measure taking effect.
The latest effort of longtime initiative sponsor Tim Eyman, I-976 aims to reduce car-tab taxes across the state to a flat $30 and repeal city authority to charge car-tab fees for local transportation projects. It also attempts to roll back car-tab taxes used by Sound Transit. Most of the initiative would take effect on Dec. 5.
Seattle uses a local car-tab fee that would be wiped out by the initiative to fund bus service, transit passes and road maintenance. Part of that fee was approved by city voters in 2014.
The lawsuit will be filed next week, City Attorney Pete Holmes said at a news conference.
“We respect the right of voters in other communities to decide what is best for their communities,” Durkan said, “but the state should not override the will of Seattle voters and tell us how to invest our tax dollars.”
While about 54% of voters statewide were favoring I-976 as of Thursday, 58% of King County voters were rejecting it.
Seattle and King County will request an injunction in King County Superior Court to pause the initiative while legal challenges play out, Holmes said.
Holmes would not offer specifics about his argument, but said his office was considering “three to four” legal challenges to I-976, including that it violates a rule in the state constitution that initiatives must deal with a single subject. Over the last two decades, multiple Eyman initiatives have been challenged on those grounds.
“The best blueprint for legal action against this is the same blueprint that has been [used against] almost every Eyman initiative where the courts have struck it down,” Durkan said.
Holmes claimed the initiative was “a lie to voters” because its effects went beyond simply $30 car tabs.
Ahead of the city’s announcement, Eyman decried decisions to sue.
“Everybody in the state should be able to get the policy they voted for, even if Seattle doesn’t want it,” Eyman said.
Durkan’s announcement attracted spectacle at City Hall, as Eyman attempted to enter the mayor’s news conference only to be denied by her staff. Afterward, transit advocates confronted him in front of news cameras, saying he should answer for the harm I-976 would cause to vulnerable communities who depend on transit.
In an argument over the single-subject rule, cities challenging the initiative would likely say that lowering state taxes is separate from repealing local taxing authority, while state attorneys defending the measure would say the whole initiative is car-tab-related, said former state Attorney General Rob McKenna.
While taxpayers and politicians await courtroom fights, the initiative’s fallout began this week.
Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday night he directed the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to “postpone projects not yet underway.”
The state on Thursday was still determining which projects were affected by that order, but planned to go ahead with fish passage and safety-related projects, according to a WSDOT spokeswoman. Washington faces a court order to remove culverts that block fish migration.
Seattle was still grappling with how its budget may be affected, though dire effects are not likely to hit immediately.
Along with lowering state car-tab taxes, I-976 repeals city authority to charge certain local car-tab fees. In Seattle, an $80 fee includes $20 to fund road maintenance and $60 for King County Metro bus service and transit passes.
Seattle expected to raise about $33 million from car-tab fees next year, with about $25 million to support bus service and transit passes and $8 million for pothole repair, bike lanes and other city projects.
Those fees make up nearly 90% of the city’s pothole repair funding, according to SDOT. About 12,000 high school students and 1,500 public housing residents receive free transit passes from those funds, Durkan said.
Metro has warned that without that funding, it could cut service on Seattle bus routes.
Because the city has already purchased bus service from Metro through March, no cuts are expected until then, SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe said. To backfill other losses, Seattle may use reserves but is still determining details, Zimbabwe said.
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the council’s budget committee, said she does not expect to dramatically change the 2020 budget.
“I’m not going to bow to saying to Tim Eyman that I’m going to backfill transit because my focus is on human services and getting the housing,” Bagshaw said. If Seattle’s lawsuit fails to overturn I-976, city officials will have to reconsider what to do about lost funding.
Regardless of I-976, the city’s $60 car-tab fee and a 0.1% sales tax that also funds transit are set to expire at the end of next year. City officials have not released plans for a replacement tax package.
I-976 is expected to be defended in court by the Washington State Attorney General’s Office. That office is also bringing a high-profile campaign-finance lawsuit against Eyman in which he has twice been held in contempt.
Eyman has demanded someone else defend the initiative. “I don’t think anybody would ever take seriously that [Attorney General Bob Ferguson] would put forth the effort the voters deserve,” he said Wednesday.
Ferguson, a Democrat, defended his office’s role.
“When the people pass an initiative, it is the job of the Attorney General’s Office to defend that initiative against legal challenges,” he said in a prepared statement. “That’s a responsibility my office takes very seriously.” Ferguson’s office last defended an Eyman initiative in 2016.
McKenna, a Republican, said the situation is not cause for alarm and that the cases would involve lawyers from two different parts of the Attorney General’s Office.
“The lawyers in that office are highly professional,” said McKenna, who was elected attorney general in 2004 and 2008. “They take their responsibility for defending adopted state laws very seriously and they also hate to lose. So they’ll go to court and give it their best effort.”