SEATTLE — A judge on Wednesday blocked Tim Eyman’s $30 car tab measure from taking effect in Washington state while cities and counties challenge its legality, citing “substantial concerns” that the initiative’s description on the ballot was misleading.
Voters approved Initiative 976 earlier this month. It caps most taxes paid through annual vehicle registration at $30 and largely revokes the authority of state and local governments to add new taxes and fees.
The city of Seattle, King County, Garfield County’s transit agency and a coalition of cities across the state sued to stop the measure, saying it would eviscerate funds they need to pay for transit and road maintenance. It would cost the state and local governments more than $4 billion in revenue over the next six years, according to the state Office of Financial Management.
The plaintiffs have noted that the ballot summary said I-976 would “limit annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30, except voter-approved charges.” That suggested to voters that locally approved measures, such as additional license fees passed by Seattle voters to pay for improved bus service and voters’ agreement to fund Seattle-area Sound Transit light rail projects, would survive, they said.
As the full text of the measure shows, however, only fees approved by voters in the future would be allowed, and the authority of local jurisdictions to seek such measures to begin with would also be curtailed.
King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson expressed concern during a hearing Tuesday that language was misleading, and in his order Wednesday he said the plaintiffs were likely to win their case. He ordered Washington state to cease efforts to implement the initiative on Dec. 5, when it was due to take effect, pending further orders.
“Plaintiffs have raised substantial concerns as to whether I-976’s ballot title was misleading,” the ruling said.
The judge emphasized that he had not reached a final determination that the measure is unconstitutional, and he said it was not a foregone conclusion that he would strike it down — only that the challengers had made enough of a case to stop its implementation while the legal case proceeds.
He noted that if the state and cities continue to collect the vehicle taxes and fees as they have been, they can later refund that money if the initiative is upheld. But if they stop collecting the money while the case proceeds, there’s no way for them to collect them retroactively.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Alan Copsey, a lawyer for the state, disagreed that the language was deceptive. He argued that measure descriptions on the ballot are limited to 30 words, so not every effect can be described.
The ballot language said the measure would “repeal, reduce, or remove authority to impose certain vehicle taxes and fees,” and that should have put voters on notice that they needed to read the initiative’s full language if they wanted to know what it did, he said.
The ballot title and summary are supplied by the Attorney General’s Office. In this case, the language was drawn directly from the first section of the initiative.
The initiative’s sponsor, Eyman, is a longtime antitax initiative promoter who recently announced a run for governor. His $30 car tab initiative first passed 20 years ago. It was struck down in court before being enacted by lawmakers. The fees have crept up as lawmakers allowed them and voters in some places approved them.
Eyman also promoted the initiative as a way to undo a car-tab fee hike collected by Sound Transit in the Puget Sound region. The agency uses a method of vehicle valuation that inflates some car values. Voters approved the increase as part of a light-rail expansion package in 2016 for King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. Some drivers experienced car tab sticker shock after the measure was approved and costs soared. One lawsuit over the valuations is before the state’s high court.
With I-976’s passage, Sound Transit stands to lose about $328 million a year, or about 11% of its annual revenue, according to the state analysis. The agency said it could lose about $13 billion more over 20 years because of higher borrowing costs and possible light rail project delays.
In Seattle, an $80 car tab fee pays for, among other things, bus and light-rail passes for students and residents who live in public housing. The city said it would have to cut 110,000 hours in bus service due to I-976. Across the state, Garfield County said it would have to cut by half the transportation services it provides to help seniors and disabled people get to the grocery store, the doctor and other appointments.