Seattle, King County head to court in bid to pause $30 car tabs ahead of holidays

Nov 26, 2019, 8:30 AM | Updated: 4:34 pm
I-976, $30 car tabs...
Jenny Durkan and Pete Holmes addressing I-976 impacts. (KIRO Radio, Hanna Scott)
(KIRO Radio, Hanna Scott)

Seattle, King County, and other organizations and transit agencies are suing to stop implementation of the voter approved I-976, heading to court Tuesday morning.

Washington’s $30 car tab debacle could have been avoided

The plaintiffs are asking King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson for a preliminary injunction to temporarily block I-976 from taking effect while the court process plays out. The bulk of the measure kicks in a week from Thursday, while the portion impacting car tab charges related to Sound Transit’s ST3 funding won’t take effect until the spring.

In court filings, the Seattle and King County group argued the initiative is unconstitutional on multiple fronts, and are asking for the injunction to protect against “immediate, devastating, and irreparable impacts.”

However, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson — who is required to defend the voter-approved state initiative — said in his response this week that Seattle and the others had failed to meet the high bar needed for a preliminary injunction.

“Plaintiffs claim that this is one of the rare ‘clear and plain cases’ where the Court should issue an injunction because ‘the initiative is unconstitutional and its implementation would cause immediate, devastating, and irreparable impacts.’ These claims are false,” said Ferguson.

“Plaintiffs cannot demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that I-976 is unconstitutional, and they have failed to show that the measure would cause ‘immediate, devastating, and irreparable’ impacts that would justify an injunction during the short time it would take to resolve the merits of this case, which could likely be done on summary judgment in a matter of weeks,” he continued.

The real reason Washington voters approved $30 car tabs

The Seattle group countered yesterday in their own court filing, saying in part, that “there is no adequate remedy to make Plaintiffs and their constituents whole from implementation of this unconstitutional measure.”

“Conversely, no voter is harmed if the initiative is stayed because any over collection of fees and taxes can be refunded,” the filing continued. “With an affirmatively misleading ballot title, multiple subjects, hidden amendments, an overreach of initiative powers, and the reversal of local election results, I-976 patently violates Washington’s constitution. A preliminary injunction is necessary to preserve the status quo while this Court considers these important constitutional questions.”

Update, 4:30 p.m.

In order for the judge to grant a preliminary injunction the plaintiffs must prove a few things, including that the measure is unconstitutional and that it will cause immediate and irreparable harm, among other things.

In court Tuesday, lawyers for the city of Seattle, King County and other groups stuck to their claims in their filings – essentially arguing I-976 was unconstitutional because it violates the single subject rule, has a ballot title that deceives voters, and because it undoes a previous local vote by Seattle voters who thought they were approving a $60 car tab fee for bus service through 2020 back in 2014 and because that vote has now been undone by the state electorate.

On the issue of immediate harm, King County’s lawyer pointed to the various impact on Day 1 of implementation, including the loss of more than 100,000 Metro bus service hours.

A question emerged about whether Seattle’s reserves from its $60 car tab account $20,000 – was enough to continue that service while the lower court process played out, assuming this case will ultimately be decided by the state Supreme Court. Seattle’s lawyer could not answer, but along with the county’s lawyer pointed out that any money not collected by the city’s Transportation Benefit District (repealed by the initiative) can never be recovered, because it’s not like you can go back to the voter after the fact and ask for the money that was not collected should the initiative be overturned.

Another interesting item came when the judge wanted to know, essentially, whether Sound Transit was correct in its belief that I-976 does not set a deadline for it — or even require it – to stop collecting the MVET approved with ST3.

The attorney for the state – tasked with defending the initiative – said he could not answer at the moment.

That was one of several things that led initiative sponsor Tim Eyman to stand up in court to have say – which the judge shut down – and then turn his ire to attorney for the state who he said botched the job of defending his initiative. Outside the courtroom he called for civil disobedience – encouraging all Washington state drivers not to pay their car tabs under I-976 and the voter’s will is upheld.

The judge hearing the case expects to issue a written ruling either Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning.

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Seattle, King County head to court in bid to pause $30 car tabs ahead of holidays