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WA Supreme Court strikes down I-976, calling it ‘deceptive and misleading’

Tim Eyman continues to be very bad at writing initiatives, wasting an enormous amount of people’s time and energy arguing over a statewide initiative that wasn’t even constitutional.

The official description for I-976 that appeared on ballots in 2019 said it would lower so-called “car tab” fees “except voter-approved charges.” But the initiative would actually lower the fees even for charges that voters had previously approved. Eight of the nine WA Supreme Court justices said that was “deceptive and misleading” to the point of being unconstitutional, Heidi Groover at the Seattle Times reports.

This is great news for several reasons. The most immediate cause for celebration is that Seattle and so many other communities that rely on these fees to fund transportation will not need to pay back any fees collected since the initiative passed. Seattle has been collecting the fees, but has not spent them in case they needed to be refunded. With transportation budgets in crisis, this is a huge relief.

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“Car tabs” is also a bit of a confusing term because it combines different kinds of taxes together. A vehicle license fee—like the one used by Seattle—is a flat-rate fee attached to any vehicle license, but a vehicle excise tax—like the one used by Sound Transit—is based on the value of the vehicle. The term “car tab” attempts to lump them together, but they are different. Some voters were angry about the way Sound Transit’s excise tax valued vehicles, but does that mean they were also opposed to vehicle license fees? It’s impossible to know. That’s why initiatives are also not allowed to combine multiple issues into one vote, another concern the justices cited.

Again, Eyman is pretty decent at passing votes, but terrible at writing initiatives. Many YES voters will likely be angry at the Supreme Court, but they should reserve a lot of their anger for Eyman.

Even though it was struck down, the initiative has had a big impact anyway. Seattle is currently voting on Proposition 1, which would renew funding for the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (“STBD”). The previous STBD was funded in part by sales tax and in part by vehicle license fees and expires at the end of 2020. But with the fate of I-976 unknown, Seattle leaders could not feasibly propose a new vote on a potentially illegal tax. So the version up for a vote does not include vehicle license fees. I-976 supporters can claim that as a victory.

It’s also not yet clear how state Democrats are going to respond. 53% of statewide voters approved the initiative, flawed as it was, though it failed miserably in Seattle and King County.

This decision also opens the door for adding vehicle license fees to the STBD in the future. Maybe next year? Obviously, it would have been nice to only have to run one campaign, but this is just how it played out. And in the end, maybe we’ll end up with an even bigger STBD than the version expiring now.

But man, it sure is exhausting and precarious work to fund transit in this supposedly pro-environment state.

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5 responses to “WA Supreme Court strikes down I-976, calling it ‘deceptive and misleading’”

  1. Even though the Sound Transit depends on its car valuation schedule for part of its revenue, it would be wise for them to adopt something similar to the Blue Book schedule. I think that factor was what motivated many people to vote for Eyman’s initiative and, if we want their continued support for Sound Transit, this would be a good appeasement.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I’m ok with them tinkering with the formula, but only if funding levels are preserved. I’m very against cutting the funding voters approved.

    2. Breadbaker

      There is a problem under Washington constitutional law in delegating what is essentially legislative power (the standard for valuing vehicles) to someone outside state government. There is case law, for example, that doesn’t allow the state to delegate certain indexes to the federal government (basically, a state official has to adopt the federal formula in arrears). To allow Kelley Blue Book, which is beholden to no one and presumably bribable by anyone, to set tax rates in Washington would violate this principle. The lower court actually found as much, but the Supreme Court didn’t have to get to the issue since it struck down the statute in toto for violations of both the single purpose and “expressed in its title” requirements for legislation, which applies equally to initiatives.

      1. Bear in mind that Sound Transit could come up with their *own* schedule, but model it after Blue Book. I don’t see how that could violate anything. If it were of by 5 or 10%, probably most people wouldn’t mind or even notice.

  2. R

    Tim Eyman knows exactly what he’s doing and is a fraudster who found running initiative campaigns preferable to selling watches to fraternities.

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