Understanding the I-976 legal challenge

In the CourtsStatements & Advisories

Today, the Washington State Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Garfield County Transportation Authority, et al. v. State of Washington, the legal challenge to Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976, with a final ruling expected to follow in several months’ time, perhaps in the autumn of this year.

I-976 is the measure that voters considered and adopted last year that concerns transportation funding; I-976 was concocted to wipe out billions of dollars in funding for non-highway modes of transportation, which Eyman ideologically opposes investing in.

The case, No. 98320-8, seeks the complete invalidation of Initiative 976 on the grounds that it violates multiple provisions of the Washington State Constitution, including the single subject rule and the subject-in-title rule. The plaintiffs/appellants are Garfield County Transportation Authority, the City of Seattle, King County, the Washington State Transit Association, the Association of Washington Cities, the Port of Seattle, Intercity Transit of Thurston County, the Amalgamated Transit Union Legislative Council of Washington, and Michael Rogers.

The defendant/respondent is the State of Washington due to I-976’s passage last November by a submajority of Washington State voters.

(We user the term submajority because just 23.44% of the state’s then 4,503,871 registered voters voted for I-976, while 20.80% voted no and 55.76% did not vote at all.)

The intervenor-plaintiffs (appellants) are Washington Adapt, the Transit Riders Union, and Climate Solutions; the intervenor-defendants (respondents) are Clint Didier, Permanent Offense, Tim Eyman, Mike Fagan, Jack Fagan, and Pierce County.

Oral argument will be heard at 1:30 PM and will be broadcast on TVW.

The briefs filed for the Court’s consideration are available here:

The outcome of the legal challenge will determine whether I-976 ever goes into effect or not.

The State is currently barred from implementing the initiative by an injunction originally issued by King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson last November and subsequently sustained by the Washington State Supreme Court.

The Court will have the final word as to I-976’s constitutionality when it eventually rules.

The Court has previously struck down, in whole or in part, the following Eyman initiatives:

Appellants assert that I-976 is unconstitutional on multiple fronts, including on an Article II, Section 19 basis, and therefore must be struck down in its entirety. The major issues in the case, as identified by the appellants, are as follows:

  1. Does I-976 violate article II, section 19 single subject requirements because it combines multiple subjects that are not germane to each other?
  2.  Does I-976 violate article II, section 19 subject in title requirements because its ballot title affirmatively misrepresents what the measure “would do” and does not include necessary subjects?
  3. Does I-976 violate article II, section 37 by amending existing statutes without setting the amendments forth in full, thereby resulting in confusion as to the effect of the new law?
  4. May unconstitutional provisions of an initiative be severed from the measure when they were included in the ballot title?
  5. Does I-976 violate article XI, section 12 by depriving municipal governments of vested local taxing authority for local purposes prior to expiration of the local tax?
  6. Does I-976 violate Washington’s separation of powers doctrine through legislative intrusion on the executive function of administering bond repayment?
  7. Does I-976 violate article VII, section 5 by diverting tax dollars from the purposes approved by local voters?

The I-976 ballot title — which our team at NPI has previously characterized as a blazing dumpster fire — is likely to receive a lot of attention during today’s oral argument. Titles are the language that voters see on their ballots when they open them up to vote. The title is supposed to be a representative summary of the measure which ends in a question. The I-976 ballot title was as follows:

Initiative Measure No. 976 concerns motor vehicle taxes and fees.

This measure would repeal, reduce, or remove authority to impose certain vehicle taxes and fees; limit annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30, except voter-approved charges; and base vehicle taxes on Kelley Blue Book value.

Should this measure be enacted into law? Yes [ ] No [ ]

Late last year, NPI published a lengthy discussion of the defects in the I-976 ballot title, which we believe resulted in voters being given incorrect information about what the measure would doThe post is available from NPI’s Cascadia Advocate.

(It is also worth noting that in addition to misrepresenting what the measure would do from a revenue perspective, the ballot title utterly failed to mention that the measure would have a destructive effect on a huge number of already approved transportation projects.)

While I-976’s deceptive ballot title was a huge asset to sponsor Tim Eyman during the campaign phase of the battle over I-976, it now appears to be a potentially fatal liability that could ensure the initiative never takes effect at all.

Though today’s oral argument will definitely be worth watching, it’s worth remembering that the written record is far more important. Attorneys who argue cases before the Supreme Court like to say that ninety percent of a case is the briefs. So, to properly understand this case, we recommend reading the briefs linked above… or scanning them if you’ve got a limited amount of time to devote to this subject.

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