Monday, November 23, 2020
Nov. 23, 2020

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In Our View: I-976 language failed to meet legal standard

The Columbian
Published:

Regardless of the topic, laws passed by the Legislature or approved by voters must be constitutional. In order to protect the rights of all citizens, the will of the majority must not be allowed to usurp the highest law in the state.

That is a lesson that Tim Eyman should have learned by now. Instead, the anti-tax maven continues to sell the public a bill of goods with little regard for constitutional guardrails.

The latest example arrived Thursday, when the state Supreme Court unanimously struck down Eyman’s Initiative 976. The measure, which would reduce car registration fees to $30 throughout the state, was passed last year with 53 percent of the vote; in Clark County, 61 percent of voters approved of the reduction to car tab fees.

It is an appealing idea. Nobody likes high taxes or fees, and vehicle registration in Washington — which varies by vehicle type and can include additional local fees — is more expensive than in most states.

But just because something sounds like a good idea does not make it legal. Justices ruled that Initiative 976 violated the constitutional requirement that an initiative be limited to one subject, and that its description on the ballot was misleading.

Using language from the measure, the ballot said that I-976 would “limit annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30, except voter-approved charges” and then asked voters whether it should be approved. Eight of the nine justices agreed that this was “deceptive and misleading” because it would overturn additional local taxes already approved by voters.

Meanwhile, all nine justices agreed that the measure violated the Constitution because one provision called for Sound Transit to retire or refinance bonds early — a measure unrelated to the primary purpose of limiting vehicle taxes. As the Associated Press explains: “The single-subject rule for initiatives is designed to prevent ‘logrolling,’ or including measures popular among certain jurisdictions to obtain a majority vote on an unrelated broader purpose.”

The state Office of Financial Management had determined that the measure would cause a revenue reduction of more than $4 billion over the next six years for state and local governments. But the funding — and the resulting reduction in transit services and construction projects — is not the issue; the legality of the measure is the issue, and that is where Eyman keeps falling short.

Last week’s decision marked the third time voters have approved a $30 vehicle fee promoted by Eyman only to have it struck down in court. He also has sponsored other measures that have been approved by voters but later overturned because they are unconstitutional.

As state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose office defended Initiative 976 in court, said following the ruling: “Tim Eyman has never written a successful tax initiative that passed legal muster. He should look in the mirror and apologize to voters for once again sending them an initiative that failed to survive a legal challenge and deliver on its promises.”

The people of Washington deserve better than Eyman’s persistent snake-oil hawking. His ability to seize on populist ideas and grab the attention of the public is superseded by his inability to adhere to the state Constitution. In the process, much time, money and effort is wasted while voters are routinely misled.

The question is not whether or not voters think $30 car tabs are a good idea; the question is whether the measure as written is constitutional — a question that applies to gun control or public records or recreational marijuana use. That rule of law protects all citizens, even when we disagree with it.

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