On Oct. 15, justices ruled that Initiative 976 violated provisions of the state Constitution which limit the scope of ballot measures to no more than one topic. Eight of nine justices also concluded the subject of I-976, as described on ballots, was unconstitutional because it misled voters.
“The people of our state have the power to propose and approve legislation. When the people act in their legislative capacity, they are, like any other legislative body, bound by constitutional constraints,” wrote Justice Steven Gonzalez for the majority.
The initiative, Gonzalez continued, “contains more than one subject, and its subject is not accurately expressed in its title. Accordingly, it is unconstitutional.”
Read the justices’ opinion at http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/983208.PDF.
The cause for concern I-976 had on San Juan County would have been in the form of less road funding — and estimated a $600,000 annual reduction according to County Manager Mike Thomas — and reductions to the state ferry system. According to County Councilmember Rick Hughes in November 2019, Washington State Ferries said that the $90 million to $130 million slated over the biennium from the state’s multi-modal account will no longer be available.
The San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee predicted that terminal upgrades would not happen; the Sidney route would cease operation; and the San Juans would likely go to a winter four-boat schedule year-round, Hughes told the Weekly in November 2019. The route experienced summer in a four-boat rotation in 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Supreme Court’s ruling comes nearly a year after 53 percent of state voters — including fewer than 30 percent of San Juan County voters — approved I-976, which, like previous car-tab-limiting measures, was the handiwork of serial initiative promoter Tim Eyman.
“When this ruling came down, I just got angry. I just got furious,” Eyman told reporters at a news conference outside the Supreme Court building. “The voters of the state are right to be angry. They are right to be outraged. Your vote should count but didn’t count because nine justices on the court said voters were confused, and I know that they weren’t.”
Thursday marked the third time an Eyman initiative to cap vehicle registration fees and terminate the motor vehicle excise tax collected by Sound Transit was approved on an election day — only to be derailed later by the state’s high court.
Eyman said he’d do a fourth one “in a heartbeat” but said the onus now should be on Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature to carry out the will of the electorate. He said changes sought in the initiative should be put into law either during a special session or the next legislative session.
“You do initiatives to prove voters are on your side,” he said. “I’ve proved it three times.”
Even before the results were final a year ago, a coalition of transit agencies and local governments — led by the city of Seattle and King County and including Garfield County’s transit agency — challenged I-976’s legality in court. The Washington State Transit Association, which includes the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Association of Washington Cities, which includes the Town of Friday Harbor, were part of the coalition.
“We knew this initiative had some fairly obvious legal problems from the outset,” said Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes in a statement. “Mr. Eyman has never sponsored an initiative that’s withstood legal challenge, so today’s decision shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. The court rightly recognized that a clearly inaccurate initiative title and log-rolling subjects is unlawful.”
Under state law, the Office of the Attorney General is responsible for defending voter-approved ballot measures against legal challenges. Eyman, Pierce County and other individuals backing the initiative were allowed to intervene in the initiative’s defense.
“Tim Eyman will, of course, do what he has done throughout this case — blame everyone but himself,” Ferguson continued. “He will again blame my office for language in the ballot title that he specifically requested to be included in the title, and that was pulled word-for-word from his initiative. He should look in the mirror and apologize to voters for once again sending them an initiative that failed to survive a legal challenge and deliver on its promises.”
Appearing with Eyman, Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said Ferguson should be “shame-faced” by the outcome.
Walsh said Ferguson’s office bumbled arguing the case in front of the high court. While Walsh said he wasn’t confused by the title,it fell to Ferguson’s office to draft the final language.
“It is a bad day for Bob Ferguson,” Walsh said. “He has failed the people of Washington.”
I-976 sought to limit the annual vehicle registration fee to $30 and eliminate vehicle-license charges levied by local transportation districts.
It also called for slashing the motor vehicle excise tax collected by Sound Transit, a pivotal source of revenue for voter-approved expansion known as ST3, including the extension of light rail to Everett. The initiative also aimed to force the regional transit authority to retire or refinance some outstanding construction bonds and switch to using vehicle values in Kelley Blue Book when calculating the Sound Transit excise tax.
Sound Transit officials contended the wording of the initiative did not affect current bonds. They have said the measure does not limit the agency’s authority to collect the excise tax until the bonds to which the tax is contractually pledged as security are retired.
Justices affirmed that position in their ruling.
Last November, before all the votes were counted, the coalition of local governments and public transit agencies sued to block Initiative 976 from taking effect.
A lower court, and later the state Supreme Court, ordered the measure not be implemented until resolution of the legal challenge.
At a June hearing, several Supreme Court justices seemed concerned about whether the measure’s title misled voters and the content covered too many subjects.
There were questions about the assertion of the ballot title that the measure would “limit annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30.” In actuality, the lowest fee would be $43.25 because certain charges imposed by the state Department of Licensing were not covered in the initiative and continue to be collected.
State attorneys said the notion of $30 car tabs has been debated for a long time and voters understand it as a political characterization synonymous with paying lower vehicle registrations fees.
Opponents countered that the law doesn’t allow for political phrases in ballot titles.
The court ruling can be found online at www.courts.wa.gov. The case is Garfield County Transportation Authority, et al., v. State of WA, et al.