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Sound Transit lawsuit kicks off over ST3 car tab fees


The issue of Sound Transit’s car tab controversy isn’t going away. In fact, the matter is likely headed to court through a lawsuit alleging the agency violated the state constitution when it presented ST3.

“The ball is in their court,” Joel Ard told KTTH Radio’s Todd Herman. “Things like class certification are just a short way down the road.”

RELATED: Professor testifies that ST3 violated Washington constitution

Along with Professor David DeWolfe, Ard has filed a complaint with the intention to sue Sound Transit over the car tab issue. The transit agency was served with the notice Tuesday. It will have some time to respond before the case progresses to a court where Ard aims to achieve class action status. The plaintiffs seek to recover $240 million of “unauthorized taxes paid to Sound Transit by vehicle owners in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, and to prevent the collection of such unauthorized taxes in the future.”

Voters approved Sound Transit 3 in 2016. It’s a taxing package to fund mass transit infrastructure over the coming decades. Part of the package adds to car tab fees. But drivers were shocked when they got their next car tab bills. It turns out, Sound Transit opted to use an outdated method of calculating car tab fees. It’s a method that has been frequently rejected by lawmakers in the past. The result has been inflated vehicle values and higher fees.

And to accomplish this, Sound Transit had to modify state statutes.

“The essential thing here is that our state constitution has some great protections in it for citizens … if you are going to amend a statute, you have to say what you are changing. You have to point to the existing statute and what it says, and how it is going to be different in the future. That wasn’t done in the legislation that enabled the Sound Transit 3 bond issuance.”

Sound Transit’s statement:

The lawsuit seeks to eliminate Sound Transit’s ability to collect voter-approved MVET revenues. It challenges provisions of extensively debated legislation under which collections currently use the same vehicle depreciation schedule that has been in place for two decades. We are confident in the validity of the law and will be reviewing and responding to the lawsuit. Since voters’ decisive approval of ST3 highway congestion has only worsened, and it will continue to worsen. Any reduction of MVET revenues would delay or kill voter-approved transit alternatives.

Sound Transit lawsuit

Ard said that Sound Transit’s ST3 package was unclear as to how the agency wanted to use car tab fees. He says the average voter would not know what they were reading when researching ST3.

“It’s a big statute. It’s a 100-plus pages long,” Ard points out. “And buried in there is a section that doesn’t really make a lot of sense. You have to put in a lot of time to figuring out what they are getting at. You have to have access to all sorts of legislative history materials and so one.”

“And the state constitution says you are just not allowed to do that,” he said. “You’ve got to give fair notice to people when you put together a bill and tell them what you are up to.”

Ard plans to argue that the ST3 motor vehicle excise tax is unconstitutional, given how Sound Transit presented it.

This is essentially what Professor DeWolfe told a legislative committee in September 2017; that Sound Transit was not clear about its intentions with voters:

My opinion was that this (ST3) statute didn’t follow the constitution and if it were brought before a court, I believe a court would say, ‘Sorry, this is unconstitutional. It didn’t follow the procedure you were supposed to follow in preparing something for a vote.’

Ard said that it does not matter if Sound Transit meant to mislead voters or not. What counts is if the process used to get the ST3 initiative passed was clear and understandable.

“It really doesn’t matter whether you meant to do it or did it accidentally,” he said. “It’s something the (State) Supreme Court has held … that is not merely about what legislators want, or drafters want, it is a protection for the citizens of the state to know what their legislators are voting on. It’s hard to call your legislator and say ‘Don’t vote for that bill, I’m opposed to it,’ if you can’t figure out what the bill means.”

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