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Washington car tab price cut remains on hold, so full bills due

Tom Banse
NW News Network
Initiative sponsor Tim Eyman spoke outside the Washington State Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Thursday was supposed to be the day that a Washington state ballot measure to lower car registration fees took effect. But the state Supreme Court has let an injunction stand against what is known as the $30 car tabs initiative. That means hundreds of thousands of drivers will get full price bills in the coming months that they thought they had voted to reduce.
"With the injunction upheld by the Washington Supreme Court, we will continue to collect all vehicle fees unless we are directed by a court to do otherwise," said Christine Anthony, communications manager at the Washington State Department of Licensing in an email Thursday.

The agency expects to send out well over half a million renewal notices this month. Another 490,000 vehicles have their tabs come due in January.

"Every person that gets a bill for more than $30 will be spitting mad," initiative sponsor Tim Eyman predicted.

Standing on the steps of the state Supreme Court on Tuesday, he said the justices can act fast "if they want to" to straighten out the uncertainty about the status of the fee-cutting initiative.

"There is tremendous pressure," Eyman asserted.

A terse order signed by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst on Wednesday did not offer an explanation for why the court majority declined an emergency petition from state Attorney General Bob Ferguson to let Initiative 976 go into effect while a constitutional challenge by opponents is litigated.

Three justices on the high court penned a dissent with greater detail on their thinking.

"Delaying the effective date of a law enacted by initiative is an extraordinary measure and it is debatable whether the challengers have shown a likelihood of success on their constitutional challenges to the initiative," the dissenters said. "Also important is the potential harm to voters' confidence in the initiative system and our democratic process as a whole. The ordinary process when an initiative is passed by the voters is that it becomes effective on the designated date and is presumptively valid until and unless a court declares it unconstitutional."

The car tab initiative won approval at the general election last month with 53 percent of voters casting ballots in favor.

The city of Seattle, King County, transit operators and several other entities brought suit before the election was even certified, citing numerous alleged deficiencies in the I-976 ballot language and harms to mobility services. On the day before Thanksgiving, a King County Superior Court judge said enough of the complaints were valid to justify putting the initiative on hold. The lawsuit is ongoing although the schedule of the next round of hearings was still being negotiated Thursday.

Last week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee directed the state's budgeteers not to spend the extra money collected from full price vehicle fees for the time being.

"State funds from car tabs will be held separately and set aside to function as an escrow account," Inslee said in a statement. "We will effectively go forward as if the initiative is still in place and these funds will be available for refunds as determined by any further court order."

Eyman is calling for civil disobedience by not paying car registration renewal fees. However, the consequences for drivers who let their tabs lapse escalate rapidly.

Failure to renew an expired registration is a traffic infraction -- not a criminal offense -- with a standard fine of $136 on top of the delinquent tab fees. If the tabs are more than two months overdue, the fine rises to $228. A vehicle with expired tabs that are more than 45 days overdue can also be impounded by the police.

Even if the initiative eventually takes effect, no car owner will see a flat $30 total on their car registration bill. The authors of I-976 left out service charges while they were whittling away at tab fees.

"$43.25 is sort of the lowest anyone could potentially pay," Beau Perschbacher, the policy director for the state Department of Licensing, testified to the state legislature last month. "The county filing fee, the subagent service fee and the 75 cents in license service fees were not impacted by the initiative. So those will be part of it."

Perschbacher said there are a variety of other car registration fees that may increase the bills of some drivers who were expecting a lower rate. Hybrid electric vehicles, personalized license plates, and special license plate themes have to pay extra, unrepealed fees.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.