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$30 Car Tabs Struck Down by Washington Supreme Court

KUOW Photo / Dyer Oxley

The Supreme Court of the State of Washington struck down the voter-approved $30 car tab initiative Thursday morning, stating it is unconstitutional.

In an opinion written by the court, the $30 car tab initiative violated constitutional rules for passing legislation. Specifically, the court states that the title of the initiative was not "accurately expressed." Also there was more than one subject in the title, when only a single subject is allowed for legislation.

The Supreme Court's decision states:

"The people of our state have the power to propose and approve legislation. WASH. CONST. art. II, § 1. When the people act in their legislative capacity, they are, like any other legislative body, bound by constitutional constraints. Under our constitution, “[n]o bill shall embrace more than one subject, and that shall be expressed in the title.” WASH. CONST. art. II, § 19. Initiative Measure 976 (I-976) contains more than one subject, and its subject is not accurately expressed in its title. Accordingly, it is unconstitutional."

The Supreme Court is now referring the case to a lower trial court to deal with lingering, undetermined issues.

The initiative was spearheaded by Tim Eyman who is well-known for his activism and initiative efforts in Washington. Voters across Washington approved Initiative 976 in 2019. It set car tab fees at a flat $30 and required the state to use Kelley Blue Book to valuate vehicles.

While I-976 passed by 53% across Washington state (a total of 33 out of 39 counties favored it), not all regions voted the same on the initiative. The court notes that it was rejected by 53% of the voters in the Sound Transit region; 60% of King County voters; and 70% of San Juan voters. All are regions that rely heavily on public transportation funds.

After it passed, the initiative was challenged in court by a range of counties, cities, and private individuals -- including the city of Seattle, King County, the Association of Washington Cities, Port of Seattle, the Garfield Transportation Authority, among others.

Plaintiffs argued the reduction in car tab fees would threated public transportation funds, creating massive budget deficits. They also argued that, as it was stated on the ballot, the initiative made it appear as if voter-approved motor vehicle taxes would not be repealed.

"Among many other things, plaintiffs also argued that the ballot title falsely suggested vehicle license registration fees would be reduced to $30.00 when, in fact, the lowest would be $43.25," the court's decision reads.

I-976 originally read: 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.

Officials were quick to respond to the court's decision Thursday morning.

In an interview Thursday, Washington Governor Jay Inslee said: “The state Supreme Court sort of blew the whistle on Tim Eyman trying to do something that was illegal, unconstitutional. But having said that, look, we understand the frustration of people about car tabs. I think that we should be open to some reforms of car tabs.”

Inslee, who’s running for re-election, did not offer details. But the Democrat said any solution would have to ensure funding for ferries, bridges, roads and transit. He said state lawmakers should be able to find a balance between car tab relief and preserving transportation funding.

State Senator Steve O'Ban represents residents in Pierce County. He said Thursday that his constituents favored I-976 and that he was "deeply disappointed that the court ignored taxpayers." He now wants the state Legislature to act.

“I am announcing today, new legislation to enact the will of the people and make $30 car tabs a reality," O'Ban said. "If we fail to act, voters will believe -- and who can blame them? -- that government doesn’t care and doesn’t listen to them after they have clearly spoken through the initiative process. Voters deserve car tab tax relief, and they deserve leaders who will listen to them. I will do everything in my power to see that they get the relief they voted for and deserve.”

State Republican Representative Jim Walsh called on Inslee to convene a special session of the Legislature to discuss lowering car tab fees.

This story has been updated. 

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."