Attorney David Hackett, speaks to Judge Marshall Ferguson in King County Court Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, in Seattle, during the car-tab initiative 976 hearing which the city and others are suing to stop. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times via AP)

Attorney David Hackett, speaks to Judge Marshall Ferguson in King County Court Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, in Seattle, during the car-tab initiative 976 hearing which the city and others are suing to stop. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times via AP)

Judge weighs challenge to $30 car tab measure

  • Sunday, February 9, 2020 1:30am
  • News

By Gene Johnson

The Associated Press

SEATTLE — A King County Superior Court judge who has already temporarily blocked initiative promoter Tim Eyman’s latest $30 car tab measure from taking effect said he hopes to rule next week on whether it’s constitutional.

Judge Marshall Ferguson heard arguments Friday on Initiative 976, which voters approved in November.

It caps most taxes paid through annual vehicle registration at $30 and largely revokes state and local authority to add new taxes and fees.

A coalition of cities, King County and Garfield County’s transit agency sued, 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.

Seattle said it would have to cut 110,000 bus hours. Garfield County said it would have to halve the transportation services it provides to help seniors and disabled people get to the grocery store, the doctor and other appointments. Another part of the initiative attempts to force Sound Transit to retire or refinance bonds early, which the challengers say would cost the agency at least $521 million.

In late November Ferguson blocked I-976 from taking effect, saying he was concerned that the initiative’s ballot title was misleading because it said the measure would “limit annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30, except voter-approved charges.”

That suggested that fees approved by local voters for local projects would survive. In reality, 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.

The challengers argue that language enticed voters to support it because they were reassured — falsely — that local projects could still be approved.

Ferguson found in November that the challengers were likely to win their case.

However, he also cautioned that he had not reached a final decision on its constitutionality.

“We don’t do legislation by trickery, deception or misleading documents,” King County attorney David Hackett told the judge. “There is no will of the voters if you deceive the voters.”

The state Attorney General’s office, which defends voter-approved initiatives and other state laws against legal challenges, said the language may have been “inartful,” but that it was not misleading.

The ballot description contained enough information to alert voters that they might want to read the actual text of the initiative to learn its full effects, the state said.

Deputy Solicitor General Alan Copsey stressed to the judge that voter-approved initiatives are presumed to be constitutional, and that the challengers carry the burden of proving it is unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt before the court can strike it down.

“If there’s a doubt as to how the average reader would read it … then the court cannot find it unconstitutional,” Copsey said. “They have do to more than just say, ‘Well, it could have been read this way.’”

The challengers have raised a host of other arguments against the initiative, including that it contained multiple subjects in violation of the state constitution and that it doesn’t even do the thing it promised — cutting car tabs to $30.

In reality, Hackett noted Friday, the cheapest car tabs under the law will be $42.50 due to some remaining fees, such as license plate fees.

It also infringes on city and county rights to “home rule” enshrined in the Constitution, as it curtails the right of local voters to tax themselves for transit or road improvements, the plaintiffs said.

The initiative’s sponsor, Eyman, is a longtime antitax initiative promoter who is running 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. Voters approved the increase as part of a light-rail expansion package in 2016 for King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.

The agency uses a method of vehicle valuation that inflates some car values. That led to some drivers experiencing car tab sticker shock after the measure was approved and costs soared, and it prompted support for I-976. One lawsuit over the valuations is before the state’s high court.

I-976 would require the state to use Kelley Blue Book for car valuations.

The challengers also take issue with that point, saying it’s unconstitutional to pass a law that favors a specific corporation — Kelley Blue Book, which is based in Irvine, Calif.

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