Tim Eyman, Washington's dogged master of initiatives, has been trying for years to roll back car tabs to $30, but always seems to encounter roadblocks.
A new ruling from the state Supreme Court is yet another big example of his quest running aground. The high court has never thrown out his rollback Initiative 776, but on Thursday created a huge loophole.
The high court ruled that Sound Transit can continue to collect $2.7 billion worth of car-tab taxes through 2028, despite Eyman's voter-approved initiative that abolished the surtax four years ago.
His initial $30 measure, I-695, passed in 1999 and was tossed out by the courts, but mostly restored by the Legislature. His I-776, largely aimed at Sound Transit, sought to roll back all taxes that boosted the annual fee to more than $30.
The latest opinion applies to the Sound Transit district in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties where 2.7 million people live. Only motorists who live in the district pay the extra taxes.
The tax applies to 2.1 million vehicles and brought in $68 million last year. Affected motorists paid an average of $31.55 per vehicle for the tax last year.
The high court said Eyman's initiative can't legally apply to Sound Transit because the revenue has been pledged to bondholders who are financing transit and rail projects.
Eyman was philosophical about the latest setback, one of many on his bumpy road as a tax-fighting purveyor of "direct democracy" via the ballot box.
"What can I say? I'm a glass-half-full guy," he said in an interview. "We'll keep working on taxpayer protections. It has been a nine-year roller-coaster for us."
Justice Barbara Madsen, writing for the 8-1 majority, said the Constitution and a long line of court cases have firmly established the principle that no law by the Legislature or the people may impair contracts such as these bond covenants.
Justice Richard Sanders, who dissented with a rhetorical flourish that borrowed lyrics from the Rolling Stones, called the tax illegal.
The crux of the challengers' argument seems to be that "the people, through initiative, have the right to repeal taxes, pledged as security for capital-intensive projects such as highways and bridges, when they no longer want to pay such taxes," the Madsen majority said.
The Constitution strongly guards against that, saying "no law impairing the obligations of contracts shall ever be passed," Madsen wrote.
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Washington state courts: www.courts.wa.gov