OLYMPIA – It’s been a bad couple of weeks for initiative promoter Tim Eyman.
On Tuesday, a week after he failed to gather enough votes for an anti-gay-rights measure, a King County judge threw out an Eyman property tax limit that has been state law since 2001.
The judge said that voters were misled when they approved Initiative 747.
“I-747 is declared unconstitutional in its entirety and therefore is null and void,” wrote Superior Court Judge Mary Roberts, barring the state from enforcing the limit.
Eyman called the ruling “outrageous” and predicted that Roberts’ decision will be overruled by the state’s high court.
“This was a scrimmage,” he said of the King County case. “The big game is in the state Supreme Court.”
Whitman County, one of just two that voted against the initiative, was among the groups that sued to overturn it. The initiative capped total property tax increases at 1 percent more per year, unless voters approved a higher amount. Prior to that, increases were limited to 6 percent more a year.
“Now these governments will at least be able to keep pace with the rate of inflation,” said Seattle attorney Knoll Lowney, who filed the suit.
“It was the right thing to do,” said Whitman County Commissioner Jerry Finch. “If we’re going to have government, we’re going to have to pay for it, or we should do away with it.”
Finch said he’s fiscally conservative, but that the tax limit hurts many small taxing districts, such as fire departments, hospitals and towns.
“Some of the cemetery districts are having to make decisions whether to water the grass or turn it off,” Finch said.
The other plaintiffs included citizens groups, welfare rights groups and environmental groups who also said that the measure hurts government’s ability to provide needed services.
The state, which routinely defends initiatives once they become law, hasn’t decided yet whether to appeal the ruling, Deputy Solicitor General Jim Pharris said.
“I think an appeal would be strongly considered,” he said.
In the meantime, don’t expect to see a higher tax bill in the mail this summer.
“I don’t think it affects anything until this fall, when taxing districts are deciding what they want to do for next year,” Pharris said.
He said that it’s unclear under the ruling whether cities, fire districts and other taxing districts could seek a much bigger increase by adding up 6 percent over the five years that the limit’s been in place.
“Would they really want to do that?” said Pharris. “I see that as a quick ticket to another initiative.”
Judge Roberts said that I-747 was worded incorrectly, implying that the limit was merely being adjusted from a 2 percent limit each year to 1 percent.
It’s true that, under an earlier Eyman initiative, the limit was 2 percent when he first filed his measure in January 2001. So that’s what I-747 mentioned.
The problem: On Feb. 23, 2001 – more than eight months before Election Day – a Pierce County judge struck down the 2 percent limit.
As a result, Roberts wrote, voters thought they were agreeing to a modest lowering of the limit, from 2 percent a year to 1 percent. In reality, it was a much bigger drop – from 6 percent to 1 percent.
“The voters were misled as to the nature and content of the law to be amended,” she wrote. “…There can be no doubt that in this case, I-747 violates the constitution.”
Eyman said he’s looking forward to an appeal.
“I haven’t gotten any complaints that property taxes weren’t big enough,” he said. “This is going to be interesting to watch.”