(The Center Square) — A Washington ballot initiative which capped car tab fees and eliminated a host of transportation taxes has been declared unconstitutional by the state’s highest court for allegedly misleading voters.
The Washington Supreme Court unanimously ruled that I-976, sponsored by conservative tax protester Tim Eyman, violated the single subject rule.
The single subject rule exists to impede a practice also known as “log-rolling” in which state laws combine unrelated propositions.
The initiative was approved by 53% of Washington voters last fall and also repealed motor vehicle and motor home weight fees. It also did away with a local motor vehicle excise tax for passenger ferries.
A host of state agencies were named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the initiative with Seattle and King County named as lead plaintiffs.
“Justice for Seattle voters prevailed in today's Supreme Court ruling on I-976,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said. “Even before the pandemic and economic crisis, Seattle’s transportation budget was unnecessarily decimated by I-976 last year and our residents and businesses have felt the real impacts of cuts.”
Plaintiffs alleged that I-976 also violated a rule stating that only local authorities can decide local issues, not statewide ballot measures.
The Supreme Court allowed an injunction against the initiative stand last December days before it was meant to take effect.
Washington's budget office estimated that I-976 would have slashed as much as $4 billion in state tax revenue by 2025.
Seattle Department of Transportation Sam Zimbabwe praised the news and said the decision would free up resources for much needed transportation projects.
“A robust and reliable public transportation system available to all is foundational to that vision of a thriving, growing Seattle, and we still have a long ways to go,” Zimbabwe said.
A city audit in September found Seattle is not spending enough to maintain its dozens of vulnerable bridges.
Washington is already looking at a multi-billion dollar budget deficit over the next several years amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beau Perschbacher, the policy director for the Washington Department of Licensing, testified to the state legislature last month that the state’s car tab fees hovered around $43 in 2019.
In Washington, a vehicle with expired registration can carry a standard fine of $136 in addition to delinquent tab fees. Vehicles with tabs overdue by more than two months can cost up to $228 and be impounded by law enforcement.
State Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, condemned the court’s Thursday ruling as a blow to the will of his constituents. O’Ban authored a statewide bill capping car tabs at $30 earlier this year.
“Pierce County and the voters in my district voted overwhelmingly for I-976,” O’Ban said in a news release. “My constituents don’t believe light rail will benefit them, just Seattle. I am deeply disappointed that the court ignored taxpayers, rejected the holding of the lower court, and struck down the voter approved I-976.”
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said he was not surprised by the decision.
“We knew this initiative had some fairly obvious legal problems from the outset,” Holmes said. “The court rightly recognized that a clearly inaccurate initiative title and logrolling subjects is unlawful.”
Speaking on the steps of the Washington State Capitol building in Olympia Thursday morning, Eyman described the court's ruling as "infuriating."
"The voters know what they are voting on every single time," Eyman said.
Eyman is running as an independent candidate for governor this fall and submitted more than a dozen ballot initiatives in the state, the majority of which have been struck down in court.
He has been accused of numerous campaign finance violations over the years since 2002 when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported he had paid himself $165,000 in campaign contributions.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson was tasked with defending I-976 on behalf of the state and did not mince words regarding its defeat on Thursday.
“To be candid, we knew this would be a difficult case," Ferguson said. "I-976 is the latest in a long list of Eyman tax initiatives struck down by the courts. In fact, 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.”
In 2017, Ferguson sued Eyman for more than $2 million over campaign finance violations.
He and Eyman returned to court again this year over ongoing allegations that Eyman did not disclose $800,000 in political contributions.