King County judge pauses $30 car tabs while I-976 goes to court

Nov 27, 2019, 9:25 AM | Updated: 11:16 am
Tim Eyman, $30 car tabs, I-976...
Tim Eyman attempting to argue his case in favor of I-976 in court in November. (Hanna Scott, KIRO Radio)
(Hanna Scott, KIRO Radio)

A judge ruled in favor of Seattle and King County’s bid to put a temporarily halt on implementing I-976, effectively pausing the $30 car tabs measure while it plays out in court.

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

The bulk of the measure would have kicked in a week from Thursday, while the portion impacting car tab charges related to Sound Transit’s ST3 funding was set to take effect at the end of April, barring a favorable ruling for Seattle and King County in their lawsuit challenging the measure.

King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson ultimately decided that Seattle and King County “are likely to prevail on the merits of their constitutional challenge to I-976,” specifically on the idea that the measure was misleading to voters in its scope.

In court filings, the Seattle and King County group argued the initiative is unconstitutional on multiple fronts, and asked 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.

In a statement following Wednesday’s ruling, Ferguson noted that “this is not a final judgment, and this case is far from over.”

“We will continue working to continue to defend the will of the voters,” he vowed, going on to predict that the case will likely end up in front of the state Supreme Court before it’s all said and done.

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.”

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.

The real reason Washington voters approved $30 car tabs

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.

AG Ferguson commented on Eyman’s outburst Wednesday, calling it “wildly inappropriate,” and claiming that it “hurt our chances of successfully defending the people’s initiative.”

KIRO Radio’s Hanna Scott contributed to this report

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King County judge pauses $30 car tabs while I-976 goes to court