Voters unconvinced by Seattle’s claims that it will be devastated by car-tab tax cuts got affirmation Friday from the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.
In a court filing defending Initiative 976, the office argued that voters were well aware of the effects of the tax cut and that Seattle and other opponents have failed to prove the measure will cause them immediate harm. The Attorney General’s office defends voter-approved initiatives.
The filing provides the first outline of the state’s strategy to defend the initiative, sponsored by longtime anti-tax activist Tim Eyman. Separately, Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office is also suing Eyman in a yearslong campaign-finance case.
In the I-976 filing, Ferguson’s office points to Seattle’s rapidly growing transportation budget, public benefits coming from the Washington State Convention Center expansion and the recent sale of the Mercer Mega Block for more than $140 million to argue Seattle can withstand I-976 in the immediate term.
And despite local leaders’ warnings about transit cuts due to the initiative, the filing notes the earliest those would arrive is March.
I-976 aims to lower many vehicle-registration fees to $30 and eliminate local car-tab fees. Opponents said cutting those fees would gut important transportation funding across the state, from highway projects and pothole repair to bus service.
The measure passed this month with about 53% of the vote statewide.
Soon after Election Day, a coalition of groups including the city of Seattle, King County and the Garfield County Transportation Authority, sued. A judge on Tuesday will hear their arguments that the initiative should be blocked from taking effect on Dec. 5. The measure will cause “immediate, devastating and irreparable impacts statewide,” the groups claim.
Seattle and others want to stop I-976 “to prevent them from losing money,” the Attorney General’s office writes, “but enjoining I-976 will simply mean that others — Washington taxpayers — lose that same amount of money, money they will save if I-976 is allowed to take effect.”
Seattle and others say I-976 violates a state rule that initiatives must deal with a single subject and its ballot title didn’t offer a clear picture of the initiative’s full effects. City Attorney Pete Holmes called I-976 “a lie to voters.” The lawsuit also argues the measure wrongly subjected local issues to a statewide vote.
Voters were well aware of the funding cuts that would result from slashing car-tab taxes, the Attorney General’s office counters, and voted for the tax cut anyway.
“[Plaintiffs’] alleged ‘harm’ must be seen for what it is: a policy disagreement with the Washington electorate,” the filing says.
Initiatives can include various provisions that relate to the same overarching topic, the Attorney General’s office argues, citing rulings upholding other initiatives with “far-reaching effects” like the 2011 initiative to privatize liquor sales and the 1972 initiative that adopted the Public Records Act.
A measure’s title can be broad and general as long as it alerts voters to the topics included in the initiative so they can look deeper at the measure to learn more, the filing says. Cities have “no inherent power to tax” and instead get that permission from the state, the filing says.
Most of the initiative is set to take effect Dec. 5. Along with state and city fees, I-976 attempts to roll back car-tab taxes that help fund Sound Transit, but those provisions won’t take effect immediately. For now, Sound Transit is not suing and says it will keep collecting those taxes.
That means voters in the Puget Sound region may not see a big reduction in their car tabs anytime soon.
And no vehicle owners will truly see the much-promised “$30 car tabs,” according to the Department of Licensing. Because of several smaller fees not affected by the initiative, the lowest anyone in Washington will pay for vehicle registration is $43.25.
Despite claims that voters were misled about the true impact of cutting car-tab taxes, “countless sources” informed voters about the cuts, the Attorney General’s office writes.
“Given that Washington voters approved I-976 and the policy consequence of reducing taxes and fees flowing from taxpayers to public agencies, this consequence cannot be seen as a ‘harm,’ but rather precisely what the people voted to adopt,” the AG’s office says.