The Washington State Attorney General’s Office is asking the state Supreme Court to allow voter-approved car-tab tax cuts to take effect this week, despite a lower-court ruling putting the cuts on hold.
The state filed an emergency motion Monday saying Washington voters’ wishes are being “stymied” by a King County Superior Court judge’s decision to stop Initiative 976 from taking effect while a legal fight over the initiative’s constitutionality plays out.
Voters last month approved I-976, the statewide measure that calls for lowering many vehicle registration fees to $30, rolling back car-tab taxes that fund Sound Transit and doing away with local car-tab fees. Much of the measure was set to take effect Dec. 5.
Soon after it passed, Seattle, King County, the Garfield County Transportation Authority and a handful of other groups sued, claiming the measure is unconstitutional. They sought a halt to the initiative while they argued their case, saying they would suffer immediate harm from the loss of car-tab revenue that funds roads and transit projects.
King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson sided with the groups Wednesday, temporarily blocking I-976 from taking effect but not yet ruling on the initiative itself.
In Monday’s filing, the Attorney General’s Office calls the lower court’s injunction “legally flawed” and says I-976 will “result in substantial savings to Washington vehicle owners.” Local governments like Seattle can use reserves or other taxes to make up for the losses they’ll suffer from car-tab cuts in the immediate term, the office argues.
Halting I-976 will mean voters will be “forced to pay the fees, taxes, and other charges that they just rejected” at the ballot, the filing says.
“The possibility of a refund months or years in the future, at great expense to the State and taxpayers, is hollow comfort,” the filing says later.
Seattle and other I-976 opponents responded Tuesday afternoon, urging the Supreme Court to allow the injunction to stay in place and calling the state’s request “premature.” The groups reiterated their arguments that the initiative violated the Constitution and would cause them immediate harm.
“If I-976 takes effect this week, it will decimate this state’s transit and transportation infrastructure, a process that will progressively and exponentially worsen as time continues to pass,” they wrote.
At issue in the case has been the ballot title voters saw for I-976, written by the Attorney General’s Office. That language said I-976 would repeal, reduce or remove authority for certain vehicle taxes and limit annual car-tab fees to $30 “except voter-approved charges.” The initiative itself said only charges approved by voters after the measure took effect were exempted. The measure also would repeal cities’ authority to charge car-tab taxes regardless of whether they are voter-approved.
Seattle and others argue the title was misleading. The state counters that ballot titles can be general as long as they include enough information to prompt voters to look to the text of the initiative itself for details.
I-976 was sponsored by longtime anti-tax activist Tim Eyman, who faces a separate campaign-finance lawsuit brought by the Attorney General’s Office.
While it’s typical for the state to defend voter-approved initiatives, Eyman has denounced the Attorney General’s Office, claiming the state is failing to mount a sufficient response to the lawsuit. Eyman has argued that the office should use an outside law firm.
Eyman and his allies on Tuesday filed their own request to vacate the lower court’s injunction and move the case to the state Supreme Court. In that request, Franklin County Commissioner Clint Didier and others call for an “impartial tribunal” and compare the case being heard in King County to a wolf guarding sheep or a fox looking after hens.
Speaking about the filing Tuesday, Eyman said, “This dovetails with what the Attorney General is already doing.” But Eyman also claimed the Attorney General’s Office is doing an “awful job” defending I-976.
If I-976 doesn’t take effect, drivers getting higher bills will be “spitting mad,” Eyman said.
Attorney Stephen Pidgeon is representing Didier and others. Pidgeon made headlines in 2012 during a bid for Attorney General for his belief in discredited conspiracy theories, including a claim that President Barack Obama wanted to impose an “Islamic caliphate” in the United States.
Eyman has also called on drivers to not renew their car tabs as a form of protest. The Washington State Department of Licensing urges people to follow the law and renew their tabs when they’re due.
The department had been gearing up for the Dec. 5 rollout.
Although car-tab fees across Washington would be lowered this week if I-976 took effect, Sound Transit says it will continue collecting higher vehicle fees in its Puget Sound taxing district.
The agency already has issued bonds to be repaid in part with those fees. I-976 instructed the agency to alter or retire bonds it planned to repay with those fees, but Sound Transit says I-976 didn’t set a deadline to pay off debt early.