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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Car tab break set for today delayed, as Supreme Court continues block on lower fees

Tim Eyman, right, sponsor of the I-976 initiative approved by voters this year that calls for lowering many vehicle registration fees to $30, walks with attorney Steve Pidgeon down the steps of the Temple of Justice, in Olympia, Tuesday, after Pidgeon filed a request with the Washington state Supreme Court to vacate an injunction that put I-976 on hold. The court denied the request Wednesday. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

OLYMPIA – If you’ve got a vehicle license tab due to be renewed today or later this month, you can’t count on a break from Initiative 976. Not yet. And maybe not ever.

The ballot measure voters approved to reduce the cost of renewing vehicle license tabs was originally scheduled to go into effect today. It remained on hold Wednesday because of a King County injunction, despite legal challenges filed this week with the state Supreme Court.

On Wednesday evening, a divided court refused an emergency request from the state Attorney General’s office to strike down that injunction and allow the drop in fees to go into effect on schedule. It gave the local governments that are fighting Initiative 976 time to file extended arguments why the injunction should stand.

The state Attorney General’s office filed its final arguments Wednesday for the high court to overturn the order from King County Superior Court blocking the reduction in fees approved in I-976. Local governments that are fighting the initiative might see a temporary loss of revenue if fees are reduced on schedule and the initiative is later overturned, although that’s not the key issue, according to attorneys with the state Attorney General’s office.

“But the importance of this temporary monetary loss pales in comparison to the harm that will occur to the people’s confidence in a democratic process (if a) ‘presumptively constitutional’ initiative … is blocked from taking effect without a valid reason,” they wrote.

Attorneys for Seattle, King County, Garfield County Transit Authority and others argued Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson was correct that the initiative description on the ballot was misleading when he issued the injunction last month against reducing the fees.

“There is no debate that the trial court applied the correct legal standard in issuing the preliminary injunction,” they argued.

In denying the emergency request to block the King County court order, a majority of the Supreme Court said the local governments should get more time to prepare arguments to support their case.

But that order shows the high court is already split on the case. Three justices said the likelihood the local governments can successfully challenge the initiative is debatable and an initiative that voters pass is presumed valid. They would have let the new fees go into place today to avoid the kind of harm to the voters’ confidence, the attorney general’s office cited.

A separate request for the Supreme Court to take sole control of the case was dismissed Wednesday as “fatally flawed.”

That separate legal challenge, filed Tuesday by five Eastern Washington residents headed by Franklin County Commissioner Clint Didier, asked the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus, a special order that would have completely removed the case from King County and have the whole issue decided instead by Washington’s highest court.

Such an order is rare, and only issued when a state officer fails to fulfill a mandatory duty, the court commissioners’ office said. It’s also issued only when there isn’t another remedy available.

The dispute over I-976 is already on appeal to the Supreme Court, and the five residents aren’t entitled to a writ of mandamus because of “unhappiness with the attorney general’s strategic approach.”

The request was “so plainly defective” there was no need to ask King County Superior Court to respond, the dismissal order said.