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King County judge presses pause on car-tab fee initiative

A sign directing people to vehicle licensing and registration in Bellevue
Simone Alicea
A sign directing people to vehicle licensing and registration in Bellevue

UPDATE, Nov. 27: A King County Superior Court judge granted a temporary injunction blocking implementation of Initiative 976, which was scheduled to go into effect next week.  

In order to get a preliminary injunction, attorneys have to show they're likely to win the case on its merits and that any harms resulting from the initiative would be immediate.

Judge Marshall Ferguson agreed with a coalition of cities, counties and transit agencies on both of those counts.

The plaintiffs are arguing I-976 is unconstitutional on several grounds. In his ruling Wednesday, Ferguson pointed to one particular argument about the initiative's ballot language.

He said there are "substantial concerns" that the language voters saw on their ballots was misleading. The ballot title said the initiative would limit car-tab fees "except for voter-approved changes." Ferguson says that suggested all voter-approved fees would remain under the initiative, even though the measure actually repeals those charges across the state and only includes provision for fees that voters approve in the future.

However, the judge stressed those concerns do not amount to a final conclusion that the initiative is unconstitutional.

Ferguson also agreed the plaintiffs would have to make service cuts immediately if I-976 were to go into effect. If the measure is ultimately ruled constitutional, he said the taxes that had been paid could be refunded. But if the fees are slash and I-976 is ruled unconstitutional, cities and counties have no way to get that money back.

KNKX Reporter Simone Alicea on the order granting a temporary injunction against I-976

Seattle and King County leaders reacted positively to the news Wednesday.

"Seattleites can take a collective sigh of relief knowing they won't suffer in their commutes while this case is being argued," Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said in a statement.

The state Attorney General's office is tasked with defending all state laws, including I-976.

"This is not a final judgment, and this case is far from over," Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement. "We will continue working to defend the will of the voters."

In a statement posted to Twitter on Wednesday afternoon, AG Ferguson said his office will file an emergency appeal of the court’s decision to block I-976 directly to the state Supreme Court.

At the injunction hearing Tuesday, initiative sponsor Tim Eyman accused the attorney general's office of deliberately throwing the defense of I-976. The state has separately pursued a campaign finance lawsuit against Eyman, which he says is prejudicial.

AG Ferguson pushed back against those accusations.

"Tim Eyman's outburst in court was wildly inappropriate, and it hurt our chances of successfully defending the people's initiative," Ferguson said.

Earlier this week, Eyman said the legal challenges to I-976 are prompting him to run for governor next year.


A King County Superior Court judge heard oral arguments Tuesday in the case against Initiative 976. The plaintiffs are asking for a preliminary injunction to keep the car-tab fee initiative from going into effect next week.

Voters approved I-976 this month with 53 percent of the vote. The initiative repeals state and local car-tab fees to bring them to a flat $30.

A coalition of counties, cities, labor and transit agencies sued the state on Nov. 13, arguing the initiative is unconstitutional on several grounds. Lawyers for the plaintiffs detailed many of those arguments Tuesday while also arguing the initiative will do immediate harm when it goes into effect next week.

Judge Marshall Ferguson said he would issue a written ruling by Wednesday. A preliminary injunction would keep the initiative from going into effect while court proceedings continue.

Ferguson acknowledged the case will likely end up before the state Supreme Court.

The arguments made at the hearing Tuesday ranged widely, raising several questions about the initiative:

Was the initiative misleading to voters?

The lawyers for the plaintiffs argue the initiative covered too many subjects. They also take issue with language in the ballot title about voter-approved fees.

Voters saw a description on the ballot that said the initiative would "limit motor-vehicle-license fees to $30, except voter-approved charges." The plaintiffs say that language does not clarify that current voter-approved taxes would be repealed and only future taxes are excepted.

State lawyers argue that ballot titles are limited to 30 words and cannot detail every change an initiative would create. The title for I-976 also included language saying the "measure would repeal, reduce, or remove authority to impose certain vehicle taxes and fees," which could clue voters into the fact that taxes would go away.

Is it fair to eliminate locally approved taxes through a statewide vote?

Defenders of the initiative say voters knew what they were doing when they marked their ballots for I-976. But opponents say voters statewide should not have the authority to overturn taxes that were approved locally.

Lawyers for the state say the authority cities and counties use to levy local car-tab taxes was given and could be taken away by state lawmakers. In the initiative process, voters are generally thought of as a legislative body. So, they argue, a statewide vote to repeal local taxing authority is no different than if lawmakers had done the same thing.

The plaintiffs argue the initiative actually amounts to a dilution of the local vote.

Will the initiative immediately harm the plaintiffs if it goes into effect?

The question of immediacy is key for a preliminary injunction. While the underlying constitutional questions will likely get more attention as court proceedings continue, a judge has to be convinced of immediate issues to keep the initiative from going into effect during the process.

Lawyers for the state note that statewide agencies are already preparing for a post-I-976 future. They argue local agencies could do the same. They say if cities and counties can backfill during the court process, then  there is no immediate harm if the court ultimately strikes down the initiative.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say if they lose that money now, it's gone forever. They argue it would be better to collect the tax, then go through a refund process if the court ultimately upholds I-976.

The timing here is also an issue. Judge Ferguson asked several questions about whether cities and counties would have to cut service immediately or if cuts feared by opponents would come down the line.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.