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Big defeat for taxpayers seeking car tab relief in wake of ST3

Sound Transit. (Sound Transit photo)

A Pierce County Superior Court judge has delivered a major blow to a group of taxpayers behind a class action lawsuit against Sound Transit over the high car tab fees that came with ST3 – the $54-billion light rail expansion narrowly approved by voters in 2016.

The lawsuit was filed earlier this year on behalf of seven taxpayers in King, Snohomish, and Pierce Counties.

The lawsuit contends the exorbitant fees are because Sound Transit is using — until it pays of bonds in 2029 — a now-repealed vehicle valuation schedule from the 90s that inflates a vehicle’s value, rather than the current 2006 valuation schedule that is more accurate.

While the bill [ESSB 5987] the Legislature passed in 2015 to give Sound Transit the authority to send ST3 to voters does indicate it will use the repealed valuation schedule, it does not include the full text. Joel Ard, the attorney behind the class action lawsuit, says that violates the state constitution, which requires the full text when amending a law.

“We think that’s an amendment of the valuation schedule because the valuation schedule says, hey use me, that’s what it says,” Ard said. “It says it applies to motor vehicle excise taxes and the Legislature essentially gave Sound Transit a pass on that, to say well, we’ll use something different for the time being and we’ll come back to that valuation schedule later. But they didn’t spell that out in the sense of reciting the existing valuation schedule and showing how they were changing it, or how they were making it inapplicable, or when it would newly become applicable.”

On Friday, Ard asked Pierce County Judge Kathryn Nelson to look at whether the Legislature violated the constitution by not including the full text.

But after an hour of very technical arguments by Ard, and attorneys for Sound Transit and the State Attorney General’s Office, which argued in support of Sound Transit, Nelson quickly ruled, but not before admitting she may be out of her depth.

“There are many aspects about this case that I think are way above my pay grade, and I have a feeling that there will be opportunities for those people with that pay grade to double check my work,” Nelson said, eluding to the likely appeal to a higher court.

She then quickly ruled in favor of Sound Transit that the authorizing bill was constitutional and tossed the lawsuit, clearing the way for Sound Transit to continue collecting car tabs at the higher rate.

Republican State Senator Steve O’Ban, who has continually said Sound Transit misled the Legislature and the voters over car tab calculations and filed an amicus brief supporting the lawsuit, was disappointed in Nelson’s ruling.

“We’re disappointed with the outcome, but this is why we have appellate courts, the courts above are, I think, much more experienced with dealing with issues like this,” O’Ban said.

He was shocked by the speed in which Nelson ruled.

“I really expected her to take it under advisement … consider the oral argument,” O’Ban said, “I was a little bit surprised that she ruled from the bench today … that suggests she didn’t really consider that oral argument.”

O’Ban says he expects this to be appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court, but admits that could be a long process, so he intends to again introduce legislation in the upcoming session to get voters car tab relief.

As for Sound Transit, Spokesman Geoff Patrick said this ruling was a big win for commuters.

“The lawsuit that was heard today was without merit and it was great to hear the judge promptly reject it,” Patrick said.

“What this means is that voter approved mass transit projects across the region, including light rail extensions, commuter rail, new bus rapid transit services, can continue to move forward and provide relief from crippling congestion,” he added.

Ard had earlier said he expected this case to ultimately play out in the state Supreme Court.  After Friday’s ruling he said he was conferring with his clients, but would most likely appeal the ruling. He expects to make a decision early next week.

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