State Supreme Court rules for ST 3 in car-tab challenge; King County judge upholds most of I-976, but keeps measure on hold.

Opponents of car-tab taxes received mixed results in independent legal challenges this week.

The state Supreme Court agreed with Sound Transit that the fee schedule supporting ST 3 can stand. Mike Lindblom reports in The Seattle Times,

Sound Transit may continue to charge car-tab taxes at current rates that sometimes reach hundreds of dollars per vehicle, despite a class-action lawsuit that claimed the law is unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

A 7-2 majority of justices agreed with the argument by Sound Transit attorney Desmond Brown, that the Legislature’s 2015 language authorizing the taxes correctly referenced laws from the 1990s that explain how taxes should be calculated…

Thursday’s ruling denies a claim, filed by eight taxpayers in June 2018, that vehicle owners in three counties are owed refunds of $240 million, a sum that would have grown to $400 million.

The decision helps Sound Transit afford its voter-approved expansion, called Sound Transit 3 (ST3), that features 62 miles of light rail and two major bus-rapid transit lines over 25 years, delivering a network similar in length to the Metro in Washington, D.C. 

The court’s decision puts that challenge to bed. But as Lindblom writes, there’s another car-tab challenge working its way to the court, one with significantly greater implications.

The class action is separate from another car-tab case involving Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976, which seeks to slash car registration fees to $30 statewide. A King County judge on Wednesday ruled most of I-976 is constitutional, but kept the measure on hold while other claims in the lawsuit are considered.

ST reporter Heidi Groover writes,

A King County judge has largely upheld Initiative 976, the voter-approved measure to cut car-tab taxes. But the measure will remain on hold and the judge’s decision is likely to be appealed.

King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson rejected most of the arguments Seattle, King County and others made that I-976 was unconstitutional, including their claims that it contained too many subjects, wrongly rolled back local taxes with a statewide vote and that the ballot title was misleading.

Ferguson did not rule on two other claims, one about the initiative’s directive that the state use the private company Kelley Blue Book to calculate car-tab taxes and another dealing with the city of Burien, where the city has sold bonds to be paid back with car-tab tax revenue.

She adds,

Because his ruling “does not dispose of all” the claims by King County and others, the initiative will remain on hold, he wrote.

This, too, will end up before the state Supreme Court, where initiative sponsor Tim Eyman has not fared well in the past.

Appeals are expected in the I-976 case until a decision is granted by the Washington State Supreme Court. In past years, two other car-tab initiatives sponsored by Eyman have been partially or fully struck down in court. Uncertain of the legal outcome for I-976, state lawmakers say they plan to budget transportation spending this year as if the tax cuts will be upheld.

More to come.