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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Is the seventh time the charm? Tim Eyman's back with another proposed $30 car tabs initiative

Austin Jenkins
NW News Network
Professional initiative sponsor Tim Eyman holds a photograph from his first successful $30 car tabs initiative in 1999. Eyman says he has collected almost enough signatures to qualify a 2019 car tabs rollback initiative to the 2019 Legislature.

Nearly 20 years after Washington voters passed Initiative 695, which repealed Washington's motor vehicle excise tax, anti-tax activist Tim Eyman said Wednesday that he's close to qualifying a new initiative to repeal taxes to support Sound Transit and restrict car tabs to $30. 

A year after I-695 passed, the Washington Supreme Court overturned it. But Eyman says he's on the cusp of sending a similar initiative to the Legislature in 2019.

"This has been a 20 year tug-of-war," Eyman said at a news conference at the Secretary of State's election division in Olympia. "This is what the voters want and yet in recent years state and local governments have started jacking up taxes and fees on vehicles and so this initiative gets them back down to $30."

Initiative 976 would limit annual vehicle registration fees to $30, repeal vehicle weight fees imposed by the Legislature and repeal voter-approved car tab taxes for Sound Transit 3 (ST3), the $54 billion third stage of a light-rail and mass transit buildout in the central Puget Sound region. I-976 would also require the use of Kelley Blue Book valuations to calculate any future value-based car tab taxes that voters might approve. Since passage of ST3 in 2016, Sound Transit has been assailed for using an outdated vehicle valuation model that overvalues cars, resulting in higher-than-expected registration fees. 

In an email, a Sound Transit spokesman said he couldn't comment on potential future ballot measures, but said the agency plans to analyze the potential fiscal impact of Eyman measure. In 2017, The Seattle Times reported that a previous version of Eyman's $30 car tab initiative would cost Sound Transit between $6.9 and $8.1 billion. 

On Wednesday, Eyman and his partners, Jack Fagan and Mike Fagan of Spokane, wore orange t-shirts emblazoned with "$30 TABS" as they delivered boxes of petitions to the Secretary of State's office. Eyman said they had gathered 286,003 voter signatures to qualify I-976. Initiatives require 259,622 valid voter signatures. The Secretary of State's office recommends that sponsors submit a minimum of 325,000 as a buffer against invalid signatures. Eyman said he was confident of obtaining the remaining 40,000 before the January 4 deadline. 

Campaign finance reports filed with Washington's Public Disclosure Commission show that Eyman's campaign committee, Voters Want More Choices, has spent more than $600,000 since January. Most of that money went to pay signature gatherers.

Lacking a deep-pocketed donor, Eyman loaned the campaign $500,000 that he said came from cashing out his retirement fund. Eyman said he chose to pursue an initiative to the Legislature because the deadline for turning in signatures is six months later than the July deadline for an initiative to the people. 

Assuming I-976 is ultimately certified, it would first go to the Democratically-controlled Legislature. Lawmakers would have the option of passing it, ignoring it and allowing it to go on the November 2019 ballot or approving an alternative that would appear alongside the original measure on the fall ballot. 

State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, a West Seattle Democrat who chairs the House environment committee, said it was too early to know how Democrats would proceed. But he was emphatic that any attempt to roll back Sound Transit funding would be a non-starter. 

"If we do end up sending an alternative to the ballot, it will be an alternative that ensures that those [Sound Transit] projects continue to move forward," Fitzgibbon said. 

Fitzgibbon added that there's broad support in both the House and Senate to pass legislation in 2019 to adopt a more accurate vehicle valuation table.

But Fitzgibbon believes I-976 could be vanquished, if need be.

"We've had a lot of success defeating bad Tim Eyman initiatives that promoted congession," he said. "I think we can do that again if that's what it comes to."

This year marks Eyman's seventh attempt since 1998 at imposing a $30 limit on car registration fees. His first success was in 1999 with passage of I-695 which repealed the state's motor vehicle excise tax worth hundeds of millions of dollars a year. That measure was later ruled unconstitutional.

However, following the court ruling, the Legislature and then-Gov. Gary Locked re-enacted the $30 cap, plunging the state ferry system and transit agencies into years of funding instability. 

In 2002, Washington voters approved another Eyman-backed $30 car tab measure, I-776, that targeted Sound Transit fees. That initiative was also challenged in court and in 2006 the Washington Supreme Court ruled Sound Transit could continue to collect $2.7 billion fees through 2028

In 2016 and 2017, Eyman tried but failed to obtain enough signatures for $30 car tabs measures.

Eyman hasn't qualified an initiative since 2015. That's when Washington voters passed Initiative 1366 that sought to force the Legislature to enact a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds requirement for tax hikes. That measure was later ruled unconstitutional. 

I-976 not only represents a back-to-the-future moment for Eyman, but also an attempt at a comeback after what some have speculated could be a career-ending drought as he's struggled to find donors for his campaigns and fallen short in his bids to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.   

Adding to his woes, Eyman is entangled in a protracted campaign finance lawsuit brought by the Washington Attorney General's office. Until recently, Eyman was in contempt of court in that case. His consulting business, Tim Eyman Watchdog for Taxpayers LLC, remains in contempt, as do his co-defendants in the case. Since the finding of contempt, the defendants combined have amassed more than $160,000 in fines with $119,500 paid so far, according to the Attorney General's office. 

In 2017, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson accused Eyman of receiving a $308,000 unreported kickback payment from a signature-gathering firm while working on a 2012 anti-tax measure. Previously, Eyman's attorney said his client did nothing wrong and that the case amounted to a simple dispute over whether certain transactions needed to be reported to the state's Public Disclosure Commission. A trial is scheduled for next year.

At the Wednesday news conference, Eyman held up photographs from the 1999 signature turn-in for the I-695 campaign. In one photo he was holding his six-month-old son Jackson. Eyman noted that his son is now 20. 

"And he signed this petition to get this thing qualified on the ballot, so we've kind of gone full circle," Eyman said. 

On January 3, Eyman and the Fagans submitted an additional 66,108 signatures. That brought their total to 352,111 which is above the recommended minimum of 325,000. The Secretary of State's office will review the signatures for validity and determine if I-976 qualifies. 

This story has been updated to correct the number of times Tim Eyman has sponsored a car tabs measure and to note that Eyman submitted a second batch of petitions to the Secretary of State's office. 

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."