How a legal challenge to I-976 might play out in court

Nov 7, 2019, 9:58 AM

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With both King County and the City of Seattle preparing lawsuits against Tim Eyman’s soon-to-be-passed I-976, how might a legal challenge play out? According to former Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna, there’s something called a “single subject” precedent we can look to for guidance.

“Our Supreme Court has invalidated Tim Eyman measures in the past for violating single subject,” McKenna told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “Initiative 695, which was his original $30 car tab measure, was struck down on those very grounds.”

“Single subject” rules exist to prevent a practice called “log-rolling,” when single initiatives contain multiple topics that are not necessarily related to each other.

I-976 fallout: Inslee postpones all upcoming WSDOT projects

“The idea is … that you should be able to vote on a single proposal that is not held captive by something else that’s in the bill,” McKenna described.

For I-976, reducing car tabs to $30 is just one of a handful of measures the legislation calls for. It also implements a laundry list of tax and fee reductions, including:

  • Repealing of a state statute that allows the imposition of a vehicle fee for a Transportation Benefit District
  • Repealing of the local option motor vehicle excise tax for passenger-only ferry service
  • Repealing of motor vehicle weight fees
  • Repealing of motor home weight fees

Because of that, McKenna sees a possible scenario where a court looks at I-976, and rules that its various requirements need to be implemented piecemeal.

“The court could look at the $30 car tabs and these other statutes that are related to fees for vehicles, and might conceivably conclude that they would have to be separately adopted,” he noted. “It’s a tricky question for the court.”

An alternate roadblock

Outside of the single subject precedent, Sound Transit has another potential argument it could make against implementing I-976.

“If the [car tab] revenue has all been bonded, that could be a basis for blocking the initiative from taking effect,” said McKenna.

He cites an idea known as “impairment of contract,” which restricts the passage of laws that conflict with existing contracts entered into by the government.

The next steps for Sound Transit in the wake of I-976

“Under the impairment of contract theory, Sound Transit might come in and argue that they’ve already bonded against the higher level of car tab revenues,” he outlined. “Therefore, even though car tab revenue will still be around at a much lower level, you can’t reduce them, at least not at this point.”

I-976 does attempt to address that by requiring Sound Transit to refinance its already-issued bonds by the end of March 2020, but as McKenna points out, “it isn’t clear you can require that in an initiative.”

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