Allowing Initiative 976 to slash car-tab fees starting next month will strip Seattle of money it can never get back — even if the measure is later struck down in court — lawyers for the city and other groups argued in court Tuesday.
It would be “impractical and impossible to go back and collect that money later,” Assistant Seattle City Attorney Carolyn Boies said, urging a judge to halt the measure from taking effect. “Once that money is gone, it is gone.”
Seattle, King County, the Garfield County Transportation Authority and a handful of other groups are challenging I-976, arguing it violates multiple parts of the state constitution.
In a hearing Tuesday, the groups asked a judge to issue an injunction stopping the measure from taking effect Dec. 5 while legal arguments play out.
King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson did not issue a decision from the bench, but said he expected to rule by Wednesday.
I-976, approved by statewide voters this month, attempts to cap many state car-tab fees at $30, roll back Sound Transit car-tab taxes and repeal local car-tab taxes charged by cities, including Seattle.
Lawyers for Seattle and others squared off against attorneys from the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, which defends voter-approved initiatives, as initiative sponsor Tim Eyman looked on.
Deputy Solicitor General Alan Copsey argued Seattle and others had failed to prove they would truly experience immediate harm if the initiative goes into effect next week. The state has pointed to Seattle’s growing transportation budget and other revenue to argue it could stave off short-term impacts of the tax cut.
“What plaintiffs refer to as a revenue loss is money that belongs to Washington voters,” Copsey said.
If a judge pauses the measure but it is later upheld, the state could need thousands of hours of staff time to refund drivers for the tax break, Copsey argued.
If I-976 takes effect, Seattle would lose money that helps fund King County Metro bus service. Although bus riders may not notice service reductions until March, Metro General Manager Rob Gannon said in court documents that decisions about those cuts must be made by Dec 9.
The measure’s ballot title, written by the Attorney General’s Office, has been a central contention between the state and opponents of the initiative. Lawyers trying to block the initiative claim the language misled voters and that the measure addressed multiple tax issues rather than a single subject as required by law.
The language voters saw said I-976 “would repeal, reduce, or remove authority to impose certain vehicle taxes and fees; limit annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30, except voter-approved charges.” Opponents say that could have led people to believe taxes previously approved by voters, like Seattle’s car-tab fees for bus service, would remain in place. In fact, the initiative repeals cities’ authority to charge those taxes.
The state counters that an initiative’s title can be general as long as it alerts voters to the topics included in the measure so they can look deeper. Word-count limits prevented offering more details about when “voter-approved charges” would be allowed, the state argues.
Ferguson appeared concerned about that issue Tuesday, saying it risked “lulling voters into a false sense of assurance” that taxes they had already voted on wouldn’t be cut.
“That kind of goes to the heart of the potential deception that the court’s concerned about here, where the ballot title strongly implies one thing but the initiative text specifies almost the exact opposite,” Ferguson said.
I-976 was the latest tax cut sponsored by Eyman, who faces a long-running campaign-finance lawsuit brought by the Attorney General’s Office. Eyman has claimed the office can’t be trusted to defend the measure because of its other cases against him.
Near the end of Tuesday’s hearing, Eyman erupted from his front-row seat, telling the judge the state failed to sufficiently defend the initiative. The judge quickly ended the proceedings.
Wearing a sticker promoting $30 car tabs, Eyman then confronted state solicitor general Noah Purcell after the hearing, claiming the office “blew it.”
“Your job is to defend these initiatives and you didn’t do it right,” Eyman said.
“Lawyers in our office did an outstanding job defending this initiative,” Purcell told Eyman. “You should be thanking them.”
While most focus Tuesday was on Seattle and King County, the initiative would have far-reaching effects across the state. About 60 cities collect local car-tab fees, often for road maintenance. Transit agencies across Washington receive state money that also could be cut.
Plaintiff and Lacey resident Michael Rogers, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, relies on Intercity Transit daily to get to work, grocery shopping and other necessities.
“I don’t want to be isolated,” said Rogers, 52, whose wife also uses a wheelchair.
Rogers works full time as a receptionist for the state and on some weekends scanning tickets for the Seattle Mariners, a job he says has been his “dream” since childhood. For that, he takes a lengthy multi-bus ride to Seattle.
“I don’t own a car but I still have the right — and hopefully the ability — to get somewhere,” Rogers said.
Though much of I-976 is set to take effect next month, Sound Transit plans to continue collecting the car-tab taxes it uses to fund light rail, buses and other projects.
Because of that, drivers in the Puget Sound region may not see a big reduction in their car-tab costs next month.
Statewide, despite a campaign about “$30 car tabs,” $43.25 is the lowest any vehicle owner will pay because of other registration fees not impacted by the initiative, according to the Department of Licensing.