It’s a government-on-government fight as $30 car tabs divides counties, transportation agencies and others in Washington’s courts. Pierce County officially joined the fight Tuesday.
“This is the first time a government has ever actually done something to defend a citizen initiative,” said Initiative 976 sponsor Tim Eyman said ahead of the council’s vote on Tuesday. “We have plenty of precedent over decades where governments have sued the voters when they didn’t like what the voters said …. it is really extraordinarily unusual.”
The Pierce County Council voted 4-3 Tuesday to join the state of Washington in the fight defending $30 car tabs. Neighboring King County and Seattle are among the opposing group that is fighting in the courts to keep $30 car tabs from becoming a reality.
Voters across the state approved Initiative 976 in November by 53%. Pierce County approved I-976 by 66%.
Soon after its approval, a handful of counties, cities, transportation agencies, and one transit rider sued over the initiative, claiming that it is unconstitutional. They also argue that the initiative was difficult to understand on the ballot and voters may not have understood what they were voting on. And further, they say that the lower car tab fees will dramatically cut off transportation funding for the local governments.
It appears that Pierce County does not share their concerns over the car tab fees. They join the Washington State Attorney General’s Office in the legal fight to uphold the initiative and get $30 car tabs established.
“(I-976) is passed and it is law,” said Pierce County Councilmember Pam Roach said in a press conference before the Tuesday vote. “Now we have downtown Seattle deciding they don’t like the outcome; that there is something wrong with the outcome. The people of Washington state have spoken, and the people in Pierce County voted over 60% to make sure we had fairness, which is what we want to make sure we will do with the measure we pass today.”
Eyman held a press conference before the vote. Councilmember Roach put on one of his $30 car tab shirts ahead of the council session. Eyman brought cake in honor of Councilmember Roach, anticipating her vote in his favor.
“The voters of the state have a real hero in Tim Eyman,” Roach said.
The Attorney General’s Office has declined to comment on Pierce County’s vote.
Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett now has until Friday to file a motion when the King County Superior Court will decide if Pierce County — at this stage — can act as an “intervener” in the case. Robnett said if approved, they will work in conjunction with the state.
“We would probably be working separately, but on the same side,” Robnett said on Tuesday.
The fight over $30 car tabs
While Pierce County approved I-976, the county also rejected Sound Transit 3 by 56% in 2016.
ST3 is a transportation funding package that aims to extend light rail throughout Pierce, King, and Snohomish Counties. Pierce was the only county to reject the package. But because two other counties ultimately approved it, ST3 went forward. But the controversy over ST3 didn’t end after the 2016 general election. After its approval, it became apparent that the method of calculating car tabs was different than some expected and it greatly inflated car values, driving up the fees collected for car tabs. Eyman often referred to this as he promoted I-976 to drive the fees down.
The new, lower car tabs were supposed to be implemented on Dec. 5. But a King County judge approved an injunction which stalled the start date. Drivers remain paying the higher fees. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson appealed the injunction at the state Supreme Court, but he was not successful.
Eyman now argues that the AG’s office is intentionally sabotaging the case — that while Ferguson is legally obligated to defend the initiative, he truly doesn’t want it to succeed. He has requested that new legal representation defend the initiative moving forward.
State Solicitor General Noah Purcell has countered that narrative. Last week, he said that no matter that his legal team does, Eyman will criticize them. He points out that Eyman is also currently running for governor.
“And he did send us some suggestions for legal arguments, our team researched all of them, they were terrible,” Purcell said. “We didn’t use them. He’s not a lawyer and he’s also not our client. Our client in this case is the people in the state of Washington.”