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Eugster snarls Seattle tax plan

OLYMPIA – After years of negotiations, dozens of public hearings and a $22 billion list of projects, Seattle-area voters will soon weigh in on the largest local transportation tax plan in state history.

But first, the massive Puget Sound proposal must get past a guy in Spokane.

This afternoon in Olympia’s Temple of Justice, Spokane attorney Steve Eugster will try to convince the state Supreme Court that the November ballot measure headed to Puget Sound voters is flatly unconstitutional.

“I’m not doing this for myself,” Eugster said in an interview Wednesday. “I see something that is potentially very wrong, and I’ve got to do something about it.”

In July, a Superior Court judge in Thurston County called one of Eugster’s main arguments “quite persuasive,” but ruled against him. Eugster appealed to the high court.

Now, politicians and civic leaders in Western Washington are getting a firsthand look at the kind of scrutiny their counterparts in Eastern Washington have been enduring for years from Eugster, an activist and self-styled watchdog whose criticism of Spokane City Hall is near legendary.

“I think it’s rather absurd for somebody out of Spokane to concern themselves with what the people in the Puget Sound basin are taxing themselves for,” Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg said Wednesday. Ladenburg chairs Sound Transit, a bus and light-rail network with billions of dollars in projects at stake in November’s vote.

The so-called Roads & Transit ballot measure would raise money for road, rail, bus and bridge projects over the next 20 years in the most congested parts of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

The cash would come from a patchwork of local taxes and fees. In 2006 dollars, Ladenburg said, $13 billion would go to Sound Transit; $9 billion would go to a largely overlapping Regional Transportation Investment District, or RTID.

Eugster said his main objection to the measure has nothing to do with taxes. In fact, he said, he would vote for the transportation taxes if he could.

But lawmakers or initiative writers shouldn’t be allowed to squeeze multiple changes into one measure, he said, and this one clearly does. The Sound Transit and RTID proposals were originally slated for separate votes. State lawmakers combined them.

If that’s allowed, Eugster says, anyone could quietly slip unpopular measures into mom-and-apple-pie proposals. Voters eager to rebuild an earthquake-damaged Safeco Field in the middle of a winning season, for example, might find themselves also paying for a new SuperSonics arena.

“All you need is a generic subject and you’re home free,” he said.

The lawyers for Sound Transit say it’s simply impractical to vote on every little aspect of a proposal. Under Eugster’s reasoning, they argue, Puget Sound voters would have to vote on each of more than 25 road projects included in the plans.

Eugster’s first hurdle today, however, will likely be proving to the court that he – someone who lives 250 miles away – is sufficiently affected by the law to challenge it. His argument: He travels to the Seattle area at least monthly and pays taxes when he’s there. To prove it, he submitted a receipt for a tankful of $3.49-a-gallon Seattle gas in May and $560 in Seattle auto parts in June.

“I’m paying sales taxes whenever I’m over there, and those taxes will be used to enhance these projects,” he said. (An 11th-hour attempt by King and Snohomish county residents to join Eugster in opposing the ballot measure was rejected by the court without comment Wednesday afternoon.)

There’s no case law saying how much a taxpayer must pay to have a legal interest in a case, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Richard Hicks wrote in his July ruling. If “a scintilla” of harm is enough to bring a case, he said, “then government could be buried by lawsuits brought just to vex government.”

Under Eugster’s theory, Sound Transit’s lawyers add, an international traveler who happens to fly through SeaTac airport could challenge any state law here “on the basis of the purchase of a pack of gum.”

Eugster maintains that his lawsuit need not torpedo November’s vote. Just split up the two measures, he says.

“That’s impossible given the timelines you need for putting things on the ballot,” Ladenburg said. It takes months to craft the measures and prepare voter pamphlets.

“Those times have all passed,” he said.

RTID spokeswoman Anne Fennessy said she knows of no Plan B if the fledgling agency loses in court.

At Sound Transit, spokesman Geoff Patrick also said there’s no contingency plan.

“I think we’re confident in our legal position,” he said.

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