On February 12th, King County Judge Marshall Ferguson rejected the challenges to Initiative 976, also known as the $30 tab initiative.
Judge Ferguson heard claims from a coalition of Washington cities prior to his ruling, who argued the measure would deprive funds which go towards infrastructure projects and road maintenance in the state. While the initiative was accepted by Washington voters in the November election, many challengers have since disputed that the language of the ballot was misleading. Some plaintiffs suggested that voters believed community approved fees could still be allocated to local transportation projects, which in reality, would no longer be possible.
In November of 2019, the judge had initially blocked the car tab initiative from taking effect, having also expressed concern about the bill language, and stating that the plaintiffs were likely to win their case. However, upon further evaluation, the judge ruled the arguments made failed to prove that the initiative would be unconstitutional. He acknowledged in his ruling, “Because I-976 generally ‘concerns motor vehicle taxes and fees,’ it’s various substantive provisions need only be germane to that topic.”
The effects of the initiative span across the state for all commuters, concerning public transportation and the support necessary to begin rebuilding Washington’s roads and bridges. In response to the Judge’s ruling, Seattle said they would have to cut 111,000 bus hours. The light rail system, which had planned to incorporate Bellevue, Tacoma, and Everett, would now deprive Sound Transit of $3.5 billion in funding for expansion. “We want our light rail, but we also want the tax system to be fair,” stated Democratic Senator Mark Liias of Lynwood.
A report from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association found Interstate 5 to be the most heavily traveled structurally deficient bridge in the state, in addition to the Washington State Department of Transportation recognizing that, “Interstate 90 has concrete deck deterioration and repair is a priority.”
While the Judge did reject most of the challenges opposed to the $30 tab, he declined to rule on the remaining two issues. The first being if the initiative unlawfully impacts the jurisdiction of the city of Burien, which promised to pay off $8.9 million in bonds through local car tab payments. The second being whether car valuations should be based on the Kelley Blue Book, which could illegally favor a private company. Senator Liias is also sponsoring a bill this legislative session which hopes to lower car tab fees following the recommendation of the Kelley Blue Book, however, that is an initiative which has failed several times in the Washington legislature.
“It’s a real thrilling victory,” said initiative sponsor Tim Eyman. A longtime anti-tax activist, Eyman had successfully passed a $30 car tab initiative 20 years ago. If the case were to go before the Washington State Supreme Court, Eyman expressed, “all the various claims made by the government were shot down by this judge, and it’s going to be much harder for the nine supreme court justice to say ‘no, we really do not think voters were confused.’
In response to the Ruling, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan stated, “We respectfully disagree with the ruling today from Judge Ferguson and will continue to make our case about the unconstitutionality of I-976.” Durkan conveyed, “Our residents have made it clear they support increasing transit, safer roads for everyone, and free ORCA for our young people, and voted overwhelmingly for transit and against this initiative. We will assess what impact this ruling will have, but we remain optimistic about the ultimate outcome.”