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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Court considers fate of $30 car tabs initiative

Dan Cockerham, center, of Puyallup, Wash., holds a sign that reads "Hey Olympia, what part of $30 car tabs don't you understand?" Monday, Jan. 13, as he attends a rally on the first day of the 2020 session of the Washington legislature, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. On Tuesday the state Supreme Court listened to arguments on whether the initiative is constitutional.  (Ted Warren / Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – A ballot measure that reduced most vehicle taxes and fees should be thrown out as misleading because the $30 tabs it promotes won’t exist and it’s guilty of “logrolling” by including more than one topic, attorneys for local governments opposing the proposal told the state Supreme Court Tuesday.

But an attorney for the state said Initiative 976 should go into effect, as a majority in the 2019 election agreed, because the ballot title correctly told voters it was about reducing vehicle taxes and fees.

In Tuesday’s one-hour hearing, the justices seemed to zero in on whether wording in the ballot title gave voters a clear idea of what I-976 would do.

Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud grilled Deputy State Attorney General Alan Copsey on whether it truly delivers $30 fees to renew a car tab mentioned in the ballot title. Attorney Matt Segal, attorney for groups challenging the initiative, had noted that with the taxes and fees the measure doesn’t abolish, nowhere in the state would tabs be less than $43.25.

Copsey had argued voters have seen the phrase $30 car tabs so often that they realized it was a political slogan – something akin to “a chicken in every pot” – for lower car tabs.

But it literally leaves out the fees in one part of state law not being repealed, Gordon McCloud pressed.

“It does, literally,” Copsey replied.

“I think that’s a problem for you,” she said.

David Hackett, an attorney for King County, said I-976 was unconstitutional because it mixed in changes to bonds issued for the Sound Transit system, paid for by voters in three counties, with provisions to lower statewide taxes and fees. The ballot title doesn’t mention bonds, and the initiative allows voters across the state to negate something approved by voters in those three counties, he said.

The state constitution bans “logrolling,” or putting different subjects into legislation as a way of getting them passed, he said.

But the initiative doesn’t require Sound Transit to buy back the bonds, Copsey said. It only gives the agency the ability to do that as a contingency if it decides to go that route after changes to its taxes.

The initiative has a general ballot title, which means it need only deal with the overall subject of motor vehicle taxes and fees, he said. A general title doesn’t need to detail all changes and consequences related to the subject.

“You can’t possibly put all of those within the word limit,” Copsey said.

One section of I-976 deals with a change in the way the motor vehicle excise tax in the three Sound Transit counties would be calculated, calling for a switch to the values in Kelley Blue Book which are lower than what the agency uses in most cases.

That amounts to the state granting a special privilege to Kelley Blue Book, which would be another constitutional problem, Hackett said.

The initiative doesn’t require the state to sign a contract with Kelley Blue Book, Stephen Pidgeon, an attorney for a group of officials supporting the measure said. It could “reverse engineer” the company’s valuation scheme to reduce the value of vehicles by a greater amount than the formula Sound Transit uses, he said.

“Isn’t that proprietary?” Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis asked.

Not if you could look at it in the “public sphere” and determine the percentages for reducing value, which he described as “quite well known,” Pidgeon said.

Hackett disagreed: “Of course you cannot steal Kelley Blue Book’s proprietary information through something called reverse engineering.”

Although the state and supporters of I-976 prevailed in the trial court on most counts, the reduction in fees was put on hold until the Supreme Court rules, a process that typically takes several months.