Sound Transit is headed back to court over ST3 and high car tabs

Jan 21, 2019, 11:37 AM
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Lawyers behind a class action lawsuit are appealing a lower court’s decision to toss the case over ST3.

The lawsuit was filed last year on behalf of a half dozen voters in Pierce, King, and Snohomish Counties over ST3 – the $54 billion light rail expansion package approved by voters in 2016.

“It’s our position that when the Legislature drafted the enabling statute for the Sound Transit 3 motor vehicle excise tax they made quite a mistake in how they put that together,” Joel Ard the attorney behind the lawsuit said.

“They amended an existing statute without setting it forth in full and don’t fall within any of the accepted guidelines for doing that so the statute as a whole is unconstitutional,” Ard added.

It’s a complicated argument. But Ard says the bottom line is if you’re going to change the existing law you have to clearly explain that change. So when people read the proposed statute, they know what kind of change you’re making. He says that didn’t happen here.

“What they did in this case, is there is an existing valuation schedule and the Legislature said — in a very sort of tortured and backhanded way – ‘don’t use the existing schedule, use one that got repealed 16 years ago.’ But they don’t spell out the content of the repealed schedule,” Ard said

He argues, among other things, the full text of the old vehicle valuation system should have been included in the initiative – and because it wasn’t, it is in violation of the state constitution.

Fighting over ST3 in court

The lawsuit led to a spectacle of a court hearing in Pierce County in September, where Sound Transit lawyers brought in giant props to argue their side and defend the legislation as constitutional.

In that hearing, 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) Judge 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.

A win for commuters

Sound Transit, Spokesman Geoff Patrick said the ruling in September 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.

Ard did not appeal right away – but says he filed with the state court of appeals now because he believes his case is stronger.

“The Supreme Court has ruled again on this topic of how the Legislature has to draft amendatory bills,” Ard said. “That was in the charter schools case that came down in October – after our summary judgement hearing. They really emphasized the importance of this section of the [state] constitution and we think if you look at that case and all the other cases that the supreme court has taken, that the Legislature really fell well outside the lines when they drafted and passed this statute.”

Ard has said he expects the case to eventually play out in the state Supreme Court.

If he wins?

“The legislation would fall and that would mean that Sound Transit lacks the authorization to collect the 0.8 percent ST3 Motor Vehicle Excise Tax. They’d have to refund what they’ve collected to date and have to stop collecting it going forward,” Ard said.

Sound Transit has not commented on the appeal.

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Sound Transit is headed back to court over ST3 and high car tabs