State Supreme court throws out Initiative 976

This morning the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that Initiative 976, Tim Eyman’s most recent “$30 car tabs” effort, is unconstitutional. The Court found that the initiative contained multiple subjects and that its title was “deceptive and misleading.” It overturned a lower court ruling that largely upheld the initiative.


Article II Section 19 of the Washington State Constitution declares that no bill “shall embrace more than one subject, and that shall be expressed in its title.” It applies to both bills passed by the state Legislature, and those approved by voters through the initiative process. In practice, the courts have said that this means two things:  all the sections of a bill must be germane to each other and to the title of the bill, and the title of the bill must accurately reflect its contents.

Much ink has been expended over the years by attorneys and judges debating the finer points of what it means to be “germane.” Likewise for the accuracy of a bill’s title; in the past courts have ruled that the title doesn’t need to exhaustively list every detail in the bill as “an index to its contents,” but it needs to represent the topics covered well and accurately enough to “give notice that would lead to an inquiry into the body of the act.”

Initiative 976 had seventeen sections, dealing with repealing specific taxes, repealing local authority to impose certain taxes in the future, a requirement for Sound Transit to retire bonds that it had issued based upon taxing authority that I-976 repealed, and new rules for basing vehicle valuations on Kelly Blue Book prices. The Court found specifically that section 12, which dealt with Sound Transit’s bonds, was a separate subject and thus its inclusion in the bill unconstitutionally violated the “single subject” requirement. They based their decision on their prior ruling on Initiative 776, which had similar language but didn’t make paying off the bonds mandatory — thus making it “policy fluff” and not a separate subject. Since I-976’s section 12 is mandatory, the court found, it is a separate subject.

The Court also highlighted two other issues with I-976 potentially covering multiple subjects that it said “raised concerns” for them but ultimately weren’t dispositive. One was that the initiative contains unrelated local and statewide effects. The second was that the initiative combined one-time required actions with broader systematic changes.

All nine justices agreed that I-976 contains an impermissible second subject in section 12. While the plaintiffs argued that there were several other potential separate subjects, the Court did not take up those issues, as they didn’t need to: one impermissible extra subject is enough to invalidate the entire initiative.

Eight of the justices — all except Justice Madsen — also agreed that the initiative’s title is deceptive and misleading. The Court emphasized that it reads ballot titles “as the average informed lay voter would,” not as skilled attorneys would parse them. At issue is the text in the title that says the bill would “limit annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30, except voter-approved charges”. The Court found that this was misleading to the average voter, who would read this to say that taxes and fees previously approved by voters would not be repealed. They also found that, based upon the title, the average voter would not think that the initiative eliminates the mechanism for voters to approve future vehicle taxes (which it does). As such, they said, the title is deceptive and misleading — also unconstitutional under Article II Section 19.

The Court did not rule on any of the other issues raised in the appeal.

With today’s ruling, I-976 is officially dead. That relieves a significant burden on the state transportation budget, Sound Transit, and SDOT.

The Mayor’s proposed 2021 budget assumed conservatively that I-976 would be upheld; now the city will scramble a bit to re-work its numbers, and the Council will have some more money to work with in the coming weeks.  However, the Seattle Transit Benefit District, which previously relied heavily on car-tab fees, is up for renewal in three weeks but with a proposal that also assumed I-976 would be upheld and substituted more regressive sales tax for the ca-tab fees. Regardless of whether voters pass the renewal, the city will need to sort through whether to ask voters to pass a modified version next year that reverts back to the prior funding mechanism.

The Mayor, City Attorney, SDOT and City Council President have already sent out press releases this morning celebrating the overturning of I-976.

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