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 The plaintiffs say that language does not clarify that current voter-approved taxes would be repealed and only future taxes are excepted.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.