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Judge has concerns $30 car tab measure was misleading

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SEATTLE — A King County judge said Tuesday he has concerns that the ballot language of Tim Eyman’s $30 car tab measure was misleading, but he did not immediately say whether he will block it from taking effect while a legal challenge proceeds.

Washington voters approved Initiative 976 earlier this month. It caps most taxes paid through annual vehicle registration at $30 and largely restricts the authority of state and local governments to add new taxes and fees.

Lawyers for cities and counties across the state are asking Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson to block it, saying that it was misleading, violates the state Constitution in several ways and would decimate revenues they need to pay for roads, bridges and transit. It would 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.

The plaintiffs have noted that the ballot summary said I-976 would “limit annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30, except voter-approved charges.” That suggested to voters that locally approved measures, such as additional license fees passed by Seattle voters to pay for additional bus service and voters’ agreement to fund Seattle-area Sound Transit light rail projects, would survive, they said.

As the full text of the measure shows, however, only fees approved by voters in the future would be allowed, and the authority of local jurisdictions to seek such measures to begin with would also be curtailed.

“That kind of goes to the heart of the potential deception the court is concerned about here: Where the ballot title strongly implies one thing, the initiative text specifies almost the exact opposite,” the judge said.

Ferguson said he planned to rule by Wednesday on whether to block the initiative from taking effect on Dec. 5 while courts sort out its constitutionality. An ultimate finding that the ballot summary was misleading would invalidate the initiative entirely.

Alan Copsey, a lawyer for the state, disagreed that the language was deceptive. He argued that measure descriptions on the ballot are limited to 30 words, so not every effect can be described.

The ballot language said the measure would “repeal, reduce, or remove authority to impose certain vehicle taxes and fees,” and that should have put voters on notice that they needed to read the initiative’s full language if they wanted to know what it did, he said.

The ballot title and summary are supplied by the Attorney General’s Office. In this case, the language was drawn directly from the first section of the initiative.

The initiative’s sponsor, Eyman, is a longtime antitax initiative promoter who recently announced a run for governor. His $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 as lawmakers allowed them and voters in some places approved them.

Eyman also promoted the initiative as a way to undo a car-tab fee hike collected by Sound Transit in the Puget Sound region. The agency 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. Some drivers experienced car tab sticker shock after the measure was approved and costs soared. One lawsuit over the valuations is before the state's high court.

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

In Seattle, an $80 car tab fee pays for, among other things, bus and light-rail passes for students and residents who live in public housing. The city said it would have to cut 110,000 hours in bus service due to I-976. Across the state, Garfield County said it would have to cut by half the transportation services it provides to help seniors and disabled people get to the grocery store, the doctor and other appointments.

The governments and organizations challenging the measure, including the Association of Washington Cities, said it violates the state Constitution in myriad ways, including by covering multiple subjects in a single measure.

For example, they said, it purports to reduce car tabs to $30 while also requiring Sound Transit to retire or refinance its outstanding bonds — something that voters would have no idea about from reading the ballot summary.

Copsey argued that the initiative’s various provisions were all properly related to its general subject: “motor vehicle taxes and fees.” Further, he said, governments can choose to maintain transportation funding by cutting in other areas.

“What the plaintiffs have brought to the court is a policy disagreement that’s clothed in constitutional language,” Copsey said. “The plaintiffs ask the court to overturn the will of the voters.”

The attorney general’s office is typically charged with defending the constitutionality of state laws. Copsey is a deputy solicitor general in the office of Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Eyman has asked to have the office recused from the case because Ferguson has sued him over campaign finance issues. Eyman has twice been held in contempt of court for refusing to cooperate with court rules.

After Tuesday’s hearing, he criticized Copsey, accusing him of deliberately sabotaging I-976 by not making all the arguments Eyman wanted him to make. In a heated exchange, state Solicitor General Noah Purcell told Eyman he was wrong — and that he should be thanking Copsey for his efforts to save the measure.

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