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Judge Puts Washington's Transportation-Busting Initiative on Hold

Washington state voters expecting to see their vehicle registration fees drop to $30 on Thursday due to the passage of Initiative 976 on Nov. 5 might have to wait much longer after a King County Superior Court judge put the measure on hold.
December 3, 2019, 12pm PST | Irvin Dawid
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"Voters across Washington [last] month approved Initiative 976, which attempted to lower many vehicle registration fees to $30, roll back car-tab taxes that fund Sound Transit and do away with local car-tab fees," reported Heidi Groover for The Seattle Times. It passed with nearly 53% of the vote. The measure was set to take effect on Dec. 5.

That means vehicle owners across Washington will be expected to pay existing higher fees for now. State tax collectors, meanwhile, will set aside some of those fees in case they later have to issue refunds.

Title of ballot misleading

Confusion over voter-approved local car tabs (vehicle registration fees) led King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson to issue the junction on Nov. 27. Doug Trumm, publication director for The Urbanist, a Seattle-based nonprofit, reports:

“The ballot title states that ‘voter-approved charges’ are excepted from the $30 limit on motor vehicle license fees, but Section 2 of I-976 indicates that only charges approved by voters after the effective date of I-976 are excepted from the $30 limit,” Judge Ferguson wrote in his decision [pdf][. 

“In other words, all existing voter approved charges are apparently extinguished by I-976, even though the ballot title suggests that all voter approved charges, past or future, survive I-976.”

However, the ballot title and summary were assigned by the state Attorney General's office, as opposed to the initiative's author and promotor, Tim Eyman, and now a gubernatorial candidate. Attorney General Bob Ferguson (no relation to the judge indicated), who is defending the initiative on behalf of the voters, "is filing an emergency appeal asking the state Supreme Court to overturn the lower court's decision," reported Melissa Santos of Crosscut. "The state is asking the high court to instead let the initiative go into effect as scheduled."

State transportation cuts to take effect

"In Olympia, state lawmakers said they would move ahead as if the measure was taking effect despite the ruling," adds Grover. "If the initiative takes effect, it is expected to cut about $478 million in state transportation revenues over the next two years."

Under instructions from Inslee, the Washington State Department of Transportation has put dozens of roads and transit projects that are not yet underway on hold while lawmakers adjust state budgets.

The [court] fight could also further scramble the upcoming state legislative session, where lawmakers will have to reconsider state transportation spending and some Republicans are already demanding legislators enact the tax cut regardless of legal challenges.

King County transit cuts put on pause

Trumm reports that the "175,000 hours worth of transit service cuts in the county" will be spared and that "Sound Transit got an even bigger reprieve" in terms of the initiative's impact on the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax collected by the transit agency, which was not a party to the suit filed by King County, Seattle, and several others groups and one individual.

Update: Grover reports on Dec. 2 that AG Ferguson filed an emergency motion with the state Supreme Court to let the initiative take effect as intended on Thursday.

Related in Planetizen:

Hat tip to Tim Gould.

Full Story:
Published on Wednesday, November 27, 2019 in The Seattle Times
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