Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes announce that the city will join King County in suing to overturn Tim Eyman's incredibly destructive Initiative 976 (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/Northwest Progressive Institute)

The City of Seat­tle will join King Coun­ty in ini­ti­at­ing a legal chal­lenge to stop Tim Eyman’s incred­i­bly destruc­tive Ini­tia­tive 976 from tak­ing effect, May­or Jen­ny Durkan and City Attor­ney Pete Holmes announced at a press con­fer­ence today in the Nor­man B. Rice Room on the sev­enth floor of Seat­tle City Hall.

“As May­or, my core job is pro­tect the peo­ple,” said May­or Jen­ny Durkan.

“I‑976 is not only unfair, it is not only unwise, it is unconstitutional.”

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes
Seat­tle May­or Jen­ny Durkan and City Attor­ney Pete Holmes announce that the city will join King Coun­ty in suing to over­turn Tim Eyman’s incred­i­bly destruc­tive Ini­tia­tive 976 (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/Northwest Pro­gres­sive Institute)

“We know we need to move for­ward as quick­ly as we can to secure an injunc­tion to pre­vent the irrepara­ble harm to our most vul­ner­a­ble res­i­dents,” the May­or said, explain­ing that the first objec­tive in the suit would be to put the ini­tia­tive on ice until its con­sti­tu­tion­al­i­ty is deter­mined by the State Supreme Court. “While no one can be a hun­dred per­cent sure of what will hap­pen in any court action, I have a lot of con­fi­dence in our lawyers, and in our the­o­ry, and in our courts.”

“I knew from the moment I read the text of Ini­tia­tive 976 that it had some fair­ly obvi­ous legal prob­lems,” said City Attor­ney Pete Holmes. “Had Mr. Eyman devel­oped an ini­tia­tive that was con­sti­tu­tion­al, I would­n’t be here today.”

Holmes said the legal chal­lenge will be filed next week, joint­ly with King Coun­ty, in King Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court. The case will be han­dled in-house by city and coun­ty attor­neys, as opposed to a pri­vate law firm retained by the two jurisdictions.

“The injunc­tion is absolute­ly nec­es­sary to pre­vent this real very harm to our com­mu­ni­ties. My team has put their heads togeth­er with lawyers from King Coun­ty. We’ve spent con­sid­er­able time… and we’ve devel­oped a path forward.”

Holmes and Durkan both empha­sized that I‑976 repeals Seat­tle’s city lev­el vehi­cle fees, even though the fees were approved by vot­ers a few years ago.

Eyman has dis­hon­est­ly claimed that I‑976 allows vehi­cle fees that exceed thir­ty dol­lars if they are vot­er approved, but in fact it does­n’t, because it explic­it­ly repeals the statute that gives cities like Seat­tle the author­i­ty to levy vehi­cle fees in the first place. This is an issue that will be undoubt­ed­ly raised in the legal challenge.

The flawed, decep­tive, one-sided I‑976 bal­lot title reads as follows:

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.

Should this mea­sure be enact­ed into law?

Empha­sis is mine.

The bal­lot title was writ­ten by Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son’s office, not Tim Eyman, but Eyman picked this par­tic­u­lar bal­lot title nonethe­less… he filed sev­er­al ver­sions of I‑976 and end­ed up pick­ing the I‑976 title as the one he liked best.

The city and coun­ty may argue in court that this lan­guage could lead a rea­son­able per­son try­ing to decide how to vote on I‑976 to believe that exist­ing motor vehi­cle license fees that had already received vot­er approval (like Seat­tle’s) would be exempt from the thir­ty dol­lar lim­i­ta­tion. But again, that is not the case.

If you open the text of I‑976, you’ll see that Sec­tion 6, sub­sec­tion 4 of I‑976 repeals RCW 82.80.140. This is the statute that gives trans­porta­tion ben­e­fit dis­tricts the author­i­ty to levy vehi­cle fees for local trans­porta­tion improvements.

With its statu­to­ry author­i­ty to levy vehi­cle fees to buy more Metro bus ser­vice repealed, Seat­tle’s vot­er-approved charges would have to be dis­con­tin­ued upon imple­men­ta­tion of the mea­sure, despite the assur­ance in the I‑976 bal­lot title that “vot­er-approved charges” would be exempt from the limitation.

Note also that the bal­lot title does not dis­tin­guish between state, region­al, and local fees… it just talks about “annu­al motor vehi­cle license fees”.

It is not stat­ed or explained in the bal­lot title that “motor vehi­cle license fees” means a whole host of dif­fer­ent rev­enue sources: state vehi­cle weight fees, the Sound Tran­sit motor vehi­cle excise tax, city trans­porta­tion ben­e­fit dis­trict vehi­cle fees, and the retail sales and use tax on motor vehicles.

Holmes indi­cat­ed Seat­tle and King Coun­ty will also con­tend that I‑976 vio­lates the sin­gle sub­ject rule, the same flaw that brought down Eyman’s first mea­sure to gut vehi­cle fees (I‑695 in 1999) as well as his most recent scam, a hostage-tak­ing scheme to force the Leg­is­la­ture to amend the Con­sti­tu­tion to his lik­ing (I‑1366).

I believe the prob­lems with the I‑976 bal­lot title could be the key to I‑976’s undo­ing. The bal­lot title is the sole rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Ini­tia­tive 976 that vot­ers saw on their bal­lots. The courts will be care­ful­ly scru­ti­niz­ing the title as part of their con­sti­tu­tion­al review of the ini­tia­tive. Nat­u­ral­ly, the courts will also look at the text of the mea­sure. Each pro­vi­sion will be sub­ject­ed to a mag­ni­fy­ing glass.

If King Coun­ty and Seat­tle (or Sound Tran­sit, which I’m guess­ing will file its own law­suit) can demon­strate to our state’s judi­cia­ry that the mea­sure is uncon­sti­tu­tion­al;, it will not go into effect. Hope­ful­ly they can.

But even if I‑976 gets struck down, the Leg­is­la­ture will still be under pres­sure to make sig­nif­i­cant changes to the state’s mul­ti­lay­ered vehi­cle fee rev­enue structure.

Vot­ers in Pierce and Sno­homish coun­ties have made their frus­tra­tion with the cur­rent sys­tem evi­dent. The Leg­is­la­ture will need to iden­ti­fy alter­na­tive means of rais­ing rev­enue for the state’s mul­ti­modal trans­porta­tion infra­struc­ture regard­less of what hap­pens with the law­suit that Seat­tle and King Coun­ty plan to file.

On Sun­day, Novem­ber 17th, NPI will be host­ing our first ever Post­elec­tion Brunch with leg­isla­tive lead­ers from the House and Sen­ate to dis­cuss this very sub­ject. All pro­ceeds from the event will ben­e­fit NPI’s work. Tick­ets may be obtained here.

Join us for NPI's Postelection Brunch
Join us for brunch on Novem­ber 17th!

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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