$30 car tab measure passes in Washington, billions to be cut

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SEATTLE -- Washington state voters have approved a measure cutting car tabs to $30, heartily endorsing an idea that has been around for decades in a move that will cut billions of dollars from transportation budgets and leave governments scrambling for a way to pay for road paving, light rail and other projects.

Initiative 976 had a healthy lead after early returns Tuesday night and continued to pass by large margins as votes were counted Wednesday. King County, the state's most populous, was rejecting I-976 but most other counties were approving it.

Sponsored by Tim Eyman, the measure would cap most taxes paid through annual vehicle registration at $30 and largely revoke the authority of state and local governments to add new taxes and fees without voter approval. The measure would also repeal taxes and fees that were already in place, which could cost the state and local governments more than $4 billion in revenue over the next six years, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

Eyman says people are fed up with rising car tab costs. A large group of businesses including Microsoft and Amazon, as well as labor unions, waged a nearly $5 million campaign in opposition, saying the state needs car tab dollars to maintain a safe and effective transportation system.

More than 60 cities use car-tab fees to pay for road construction, bus service and sidewalks. The state also charges fees to help pay for programs including Washington State Patrol traffic enforcement, highway maintenance, ferry operations and maintenance of county roads and bridges.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said Wednesday he has asked the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office to prepare a lawsuit to challenge the measure's constitutionality.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and other government leaders have been vocal in their opposition and over a half-dozen city councils passed resolutions against it. The city of Olympia also sent a mailer urging people to vote no which the state Public Disclosure Commission said it would investigate because state law prohibits city councils from using public resources to promote or oppose measures.

Eyman is also using the initiative to try and undo a car-tab fee hike collected by Sound Transit in the Puget Sound region, which uses a method of vehicle valuation that inflates some car values. Voters approved the increase as part of a light-rail expansion package in 2016 for King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.

With I-976's passage, the agency stands to lose about $328 million a year, or about 11% of its annual revenue, according to the state analysis. Sound Transit said it could lose about $13 billion more over 20 years because of higher borrowing costs and possible project delays.

In a statement Wednesday morning Sound Transit Board Chairman and Redmond Mayor John Marchione said the board would hear from its finance staff and lawyer at its Nov. 21 meeting. "The Board will consider Sound Transit's obligations to taxpayers who want their motor vehicle excise taxes reduced, as well as how to realize voters' earlier direction to dramatically expand high capacity transit throughout the Puget Sound region," Marchione said.

Eyman's $30 car tab initiative first passed 20 years ago. It was struck down in court before being enacted by lawmakers. The fees have crept up in recent years as lawmakers allowed them and voters approved them.

Eyman's latest measure comes as he fights a campaign finance lawsuit filed against him by Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Eyman has been held in contempt of court for refusing to cooperate with court rules while a judge has ordered a for-profit signature-gathering firm to pay over $1 million for deceiving state residents by funneling their campaign donations to Eyman for his personal use.

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