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King County judge blocks Tim Eyman’s $30 car tab measure

November 28, 2019
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Tim Eyman, a career anti-tax initiative promoter, poses for a photo with the expired car registration tabs on his SUV, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019, in a parking garage in Seattle, following a hearing in King County Superior Court where lawyers for cities and counties across Washington state asked King County Judge Marshall Ferguson to block Eyman's $30 I-976 car tab measure, which was approved by voters in the last election, saying it was misleading and violates Washington's Constitution. Eyman says that until the issue is resolved and the state implements the lower car tab fees outlined in the measure, he is refusing to renew his tabs as a protest and is urging others not to do so as well. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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Tim Eyman, a career anti-tax initiative promoter, poses for a photo with the expired car registration tabs on his SUV, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019, in a parking garage in Seattle, following a hearing in King County Superior Court where lawyers for cities and counties across Washington state asked King County Judge Marshall Ferguson to block Eyman's $30 I-976 car tab measure, which was approved by voters in the last election, saying it was misleading and violates Washington's Constitution. Eyman says that until the issue is resolved and the state implements the lower car tab fees outlined in the measure, he is refusing to renew his tabs as a protest and is urging others not to do so as well. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

SEATTLE (AP) — A judge on Wednesday blocked Tim Eyman’s $30 car tab measure from taking effect in Washington state while cities and counties challenge its legality, citing “substantial concerns” that the initiative’s description on the ballot was misleading.

Voters approved Initiative 976 earlier this month. It caps most taxes paid through annual vehicle registration at $30 and largely revokes the authority of state and local governments to add new taxes and fees.

The city of Seattle, King County, Garfield County’s transit agency and a coalition of cities across the state sued to stop the measure, 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 cut by half the transportation services it provides to help seniors and disabled people get to the grocery store, the doctor and other appointments.

The plaintiffs have noted that the ballot summary said I-976 would “limit annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30, except voter-approved charges.” That suggested to voters that locally approved measures, such as additional license fees passed by Seattle voters to pay for improved bus service and voters’ agreement to fund Seattle-area Sound Transit light rail projects, would survive, they said.

As the full text of the measure shows, however, 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.

King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson expressed concern during a hearing Tuesday that language was misleading, and in his order Wednesday he said the plaintiffs were likely to win their case. He ordered Washington state to cease efforts to implement the initiative on Dec. 5, when it was due to take effect, pending further orders.

The judge emphasized that he had not reached a final determination that the measure is unconstitutional, and he said it was not a foregone conclusion that he would strike it down — only that the challengers had made enough of a case to stop its implementation while the legal case proceeds.

He noted that if the state and cities continue to collect the vehicle taxes and fees as they have been, they can later refund that money if the initiative is upheld. But if they stop collecting the money while the case proceeds, there’s no way for them to collect them retroactively.

State Rep. Jake Fey, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said the Legislature is still “in a pickle,” even with the injunction.

He said that because there’s no way they’ll have resolution on the case before the end of the upcoming 60-day legislative session, they’ll have to approach the transportation budget the same as if the law was taking effect. The Department of Transportation on Wednesday released a list of projects not yet started that are to be postponed.

“The consequences would be even worse if we went ahead and started spending as if it hadn’t happened and we find out that the initiative has prevailed,” Fey said.

Eyman did not immediately return a message seeking comment but in an email sent to media and supporters wrote that Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose office is defending the initiative, “failed the voters by sabotaging and undermining I-976 from within.” The chairman of the state Republican Party, Caleb Heimlich, called the decision “a disrespectful and blatant miscarriage of justice towards the voters of Washington state.”

“This is not a final judgment, and this case is far from over,” Ferguson said in an emailed statement. “We will continue working to defend the will of the voters. This case will ultimately wind up before the State Supreme Court.”

Ferguson said later Wednesday that he had decided to file an emergency appeal of the court’s decision directly to the high court and that his team would work over Thanksgiving weekend to get it done.

“Our objective is to get the issue before the Supreme Court in time for the initiative to go into effect on December 5th as intended by voters,” he wrote.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Alan Copsey, a lawyer for the state, disagreed that the initiative language was deceptive. He argued that measure descriptions on the ballot are limited to 30 words, so not every effect can be described.

The ballot language said the measure would “repeal, reduce, or remove authority to impose certain vehicle taxes and fees,” and that should have put voters on notice that they needed to read the initiative’s full language if they wanted to know what it did, he said.

The ballot title and summary are supplied by the Attorney General’s Office. In this case, the language was drawn directly from the first section of the initiative.

The initiative’s sponsor, Eyman, is a longtime antitax initiative promoter who recently announced a run 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. The agency uses a method of vehicle valuation that inflates some car values. Voters approved the increase as part of a light-rail expansion package in 2016 for King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. Some drivers experienced car tab sticker shock after the measure was approved and costs soared. One lawsuit over the valuations is before the state’s high court.

The attorney general’s office is typically charged with defending the constitutionality of state laws, but Eyman wants the office recused from the case because Ferguson has sued him over campaign finance issues. Eyman has twice been held in contempt of court for refusing to cooperate with court rules.

Eyman spoke up in court without invitation during Tuesday’s hearing in part to criticize the attorney general’s office, and afterward he confronted state lawyers and accused them of deliberately sabotaging I-976 by not making all the arguments Eyman wanted them to make.

In his statement Wednesday, the attorney general — who is not related to the judge — called that wildly inappropriate.

“It hurt our chances of successfully defending the people’s initiative,” Ferguson said.

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AP correspondent Rachel La Corte contributed from Olympia.