State Supreme Court hears arguments on I-976 car tabs initiative.

Yesterday the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the legal challenge to Initiative 976, the car tabs initiative passed last November. (TVW coverage here.) As we’ve written, the passage of the initiative had significant deleterious impacts on funding for the state’s transportation infrastructure. 

The Seattle Times reports,

lmost eight months after state voters approved car-tab tax cuts, the Washington State Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments about the legality of Initiative 976, including whether people were misled by the ballot title.

Previous vehicle fees and taxes, including those for city road work and Sound Transit, remain in effect. The court didn’t rule on Tuesday, and no date has been set yet for justices to do so.

As the Times reports, among the key issues is misleading language. 

Justice Steven González critiqued a phrase in the I-976 ballot title that says vehicle taxes and fees would be lowered to $30 “except voter-approved charges.”

In some scenarios, notably a Seattle $60 car-tab fee to fund increased bus service, voters overwhelmingly gave local support.

I want to know what the policy is. I’m having difficulty discerning it,” González pressed Alan Copsey, a lawyer for the state Attorney General’s Office, which is defending I-976.

The Spokesman-Review reports,

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But it literally leaves out the fees in one part of state law not being repealed, Gordon McCloud pressed.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

A swift decision would be helpful to lawmakers already facing significant deficits in transportation funding. It seems clear that, as the challengers state, the initiative is a hodge-podge. Soon we’ll see if it’s unconstitutionally so.