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Supreme Court ready for ST3 car tab battle Tuesday

(KIRO 7 TV)

The battle over high car tabs that came with the $54 billion light rail expansion in the Seattle area — known as ST3 — heads to the state Supreme Court Tuesday afternoon.

More than a half dozen taxpayers in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties are behind the lawsuit which centers on the final ST3 package that the state Legislature gave Sound Transit the OK to send to voters in 2015. Arguments are set to begin at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.

The issue is that the Legislature and Sound Transit amended existing law in that bill by using an outdated vehicle valuation system. That outdated system greatly inflated vehicle values, which resulted in more costly car tabs

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While they are within their right to make that change, Joel Ard the lawyer for the taxpayers, says that officials are not allowed to enact the change they way it did. It literally has to spell out the law its changing; voters have to know what the change is.

“Our constitution requires that they set the forth the amendment in full length, and they didn’t to that,” Ard said.

Ard says that the state’s code already had a method of vehicle valuation written into it. The taxpayers argue that that final ST3 package referenced the amended valuation system by simply including the RCW number. It did not actually spell out what was changing — a switch to higher car tab fees.

“The constitution specifically says you cannot amend an existing statute by mere reference, and that’s what they did,” Ard said.

A lower court last year sided with the state and Sound Transit, but admitted at the time this was likely an issue for a higher court. Ard says he’s feeling confident going into arguments at the state’s high court.

“The ensuing error in the code is the kind of thing they don’t let the Legislature get away with,” he said. “When you got a tax code that is simply wrong and tells the person, ‘You should owe $6,800 in tax, but instead the government is charging you $8,000,’ and you can’t figure out why. That’s the kind of error in statutes that the court, over many decades, has called the Legislature out on and has told them, basically, ‘show your work.'”

If Ard succeeds at the Supreme Court of Washington, the case will head back to a lower court to figure out how any car tab refunds would work.

Sound Transit said it could not comment ahead of Tuesday’s hearing. But a spokesperson did note a point from a previous briefing:

Eliminating the MVET would delay critical transit projects and increase costs.

The ST3 plan is substantially dependent on the approximately $7 billion generated by the 0.8 percent MVET from 2017 to 2041. CP 406. The plan also requires borrowing at least $11 billion secured by that revenue. Id. Losing the MVET revenue will have a drastic impact on Sound Transit’s ability to build the voter-approved projects. CP 407. Without the MVET, the construction schedule must be substantially altered because the agency will not be able to borrow the funds necessary to replace the lost MVET funds. Id.

Ard doesn’t buy it.

“I don’t really believe that losing the MVET would decimate them the way they say,” he said. “And if it does, that is why we have the Legislature. It’s an easy matter for the Legislature to do their job right. They revisit issues about transportation funding every session. And if there truly are significant problems to transportation build up that result from applying the constitution as it was written, I’m confident the Legislature will step and an address that quickly. And this time they will do their job right.”

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