SEATTLE — A conservative legal advocacy organization is suing to roll back the $17 billion transportation funding bill passed by the Washington Legislature and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee last year.
The organization, the Citizen Action Defense Fund, argued in a filing Tuesday that the bill contains multiple subjects that lack “rational unity” and therefore violates the state constitution.
“It became a Christmas tree bill where everybody gets to throw something on,” Executive Director Jackson Maynard said Tuesday.
The case was brought on behalf of a construction company and a freight company that are “harmed and suffer injury” as a result of the bill, the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit, filed in Thurston County Superior Court, asks a judge to void the law entirely.
Senate Bill 5974, dubbed Move Ahead Washington, passed last session over near-unanimous opposition from Republicans. At $17 billion over 16 years, the bill is set to fund and finish massive highway projects in the state, including on Interstate 405, Highway 520 and the Puget Sound Gateway project. It will spend $1 billion toward construction of a new bridge between Vancouver and Portland.
The legislation also represents the state’s largest transportation investment in things like the ferry system, transit and bicycle and pedestrian projects, with billions going toward expanding options for people not driving a car. It was hailed as a victory by transit advocates.
A repeal of the law would ripple broadly in Washington, leaving mega-projects on the state’s highways, ferry system and transit agencies without sources of funding for work already underway.
The Citizen Action Defense Fund, which has filed amicus briefs against mandatory union dues and spoken out against the legality of a new capital gains tax, points to sections of the bill regarding new carbon fuel standards and a goal of phasing out new gas-powered vehicles to bolster its argument. Those are policy changes contained within a bill about transportation funding, the group argues.
“It is impossible for the Court to assess whether any one subject in [Senate Bill] 5974 would have received majority support if voted on separately,” the filing says.
Move Ahead was the fourth transportation funding package passed by the Legislature in the last 20 years.
Speaking Tuesday, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, said Lt. Gov. Denny Heck had vetted the bill before its passage and believed it would ultimately be found constitutional. The package provided a “comprehensive” answer to the state’s transportation needs, which is what voters wanted, Liias said.
“If we get too narrow with the definition of single subject, we’re not going to be able to meet the comprehensive needs of communities around the state,” he said.
Jaime Smith, spokesperson for Inslee, said the governor’s office hadn’t seen the lawsuit yet, but questioned how this package differed from the previous three.
It’s not uncommon for courts to toss new laws because they included too many subjects or their titles were deemed misrepresentative. Of his many initiatives put before voters, Tim Eyman, the anti-tax activist, has had four struck down by the courts over single-subject violations dating to 1999. The most recent, Initiative 976, which voters approved in 2019, would have capped license fees at $30 and ended voter-approved transportation districts.
Hugh Spitzer, constitutional law professor at the University of Washington, said courts have also tossed laws passed by lawmakers in Olympia, adding that they tend to relate to transportation. After World War II, the courts struck down a bill to allow the state to purchase private ferries for public use because the purchase was not clear in the title, he said.
When it comes to rational unity, courts tend to give lawmakers the benefit, he said, although he didn’t want to predict the results of this case.
“It would not be unprecedented for the court to either uphold or to find that some topics don’t fit under the title,” he said. “It would be surprising to me if the court were to toss the entire legislation, but they have done that.”
The Citizen Action Defense Fund is currently seeking 501(c)(3) status, according to its website. Rob McKenna, a former Republican attorney general of Washington, is listed as a member of the organization’s attorney advisory board.
The group is funded by “donors across Washington” but does not disclose who. In 2021, the organization joined an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing a California law requiring the disclosure of donors by charities and 501(c) organizations was unconstitutional. The court agreed in a 6-3 decision.