The Washington State Supreme Court ruled that tax goblin Tim Eyman's I-976 measure, which passed with 53% of the vote last year, is unconstitutional. The court said the measure violated the single-subject rule and misled voters.
Eyman billed I-976 as a measure to cap car-tab fees at $30 "except voter-approved charges," but in reality it would have repealed some taxes voters already passed. Car-tab fees pay for transit and infrastructure around the state. Some highway improvements and pothole-filling also depend on car tabs. None of that was clear in the ballot language.
"People didn't know their transit benefit districts would be taken away," Sen. Joe Nguyen told The Stranger. "The initiative was poorly written and very misleading. It's crap."
"This is huge," Nguyen added. "This was kind of that cloud looming over us all interim." Nguyen said that Eyman's measure could have resulted in a nearly $700 million hit to a $9 billion state transit budget. That doesn't even factor in local transit benefit districts.
The City has prevailed! Tim Eyman’s I-976 is officially unconstitutional! Great win today for transit and our environment.
— Andrew J. Lewis (@LewisforSeattle) October 15, 2020
Many municipalities have their own tax system for transit. Seattle's Transit Benefit District (STBD) is up for renewal on the ballot this year. These systems rely heavily on a combination of sales tax and car tab fees. The version Seattleites are voting on this time around cuts bus service because elected officials excluded car tab fees as a funding source since it was unclear how the court would rule on I-976.
Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis indicated that he hoped the council would quickly try to add car tab fees back into the city's funding mix. It's too late to get those factored into the STBD, but the council is able to pass a limited amount (up to $20, which can be raised to $40 after two years) on its own.
While this is big for Seattle and the future of transit projects, it's also big news for communities across the state.
Alex Hudson, the executive director of the Transportation Choice Coalition, described the court's ruling as "really about local choice." Many rural communities with slim budgets would have been decimated by I-976.
"For most rural communities transit is a social service," Hudson said, describing the Garfield County bus system that seniors rely on to go to the food bank and the senior center. "So the reduction of budget authority that I-976 implied would have been a catastrophic devastation for the people who have the least ability to absorb the harm"
And for Nguyen, this victory means that the state won't need to be in crisis mode, sweating over how to backfill huge transportation budget losses. Rather, lawmakers can now start planning for the future of our transportation system.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who defended I-976 and the will of Washington voters, remarked in a statement that his team knew “this would be a difficult case."
Ferguson went on. "I-976 is the latest in a long list of Eyman tax initiatives struck down by the courts," the statement read. "In fact, Tim Eyman has never written a successful tax initiative that passed legal muster. Every one of his tax initiatives has been thrown out or partially blocked by the courts."
Ferguson ended his remarks on a word of advice for Eyman. "He should look in the mirror and apologize to voters for once again sending them an initiative that failed to survive a legal challenge and deliver on its promises."
Maybe it could also be the end to Eyman's tax-slashing referendums. Lewis remarked that maybe this ruling, and losing to a guy like Loren Culp in the governor's race, would signal to Eyman that he should be done. Nguyen is holding out hope that the lawsuit against Eyman—the one where's he accused of using his campaigns to launder money—is successful, and that Eyman will be forbidden from running ballot initiatives ever again.
Wouldn't that be lovely?