Politics & Government

Attorney General Rob McKenna sides with Tim Eyman

The board that has set the price of road and bridge tolls and ferry fares no longer has the authority to set them, Attorney General Rob McKenna's office says, siding with Tim Eyman.

Under the voter-approved, Eyman-backed Initiative 1053, those fees have to go through the Legislature, according to an informal opinion the Republican attorney general’s office issued Monday.

The decision is a victory for Eyman – but only a partial one. Even as it takes away the Transportation Commission’s fee-setting powers, it keeps the door open for state lawmakers to restore them.

And the Democrat-controlled Legislature isn’t exactly eager to take over the responsibility of setting politically charged fares and tolls. It could toss that authority right back to the board during the legislative session that begins next month, by once again delegating authority.

“We certainly would do that again,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island and chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “I think that would be our first order of business. I can’t believe this side of the aisle would be interested in getting into fare setting.”

I-1053, like several Eyman measures before it, mandated supermajorities of the Legislature to raise taxes. Also like others before it, the initiative approved last month by voters sought to require a vote of the Legislature to raise any fee.

I-1053 backer Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, asked the Attorney General’s Office for an opinion on whether the measure now restricts the board.

Yes, wrote Deputy Solicitor General Jeff Even. The measure cancels the fee-setting authority awarded by lawmakers in the past. The Legislatu e would have to step in before any fees could be changed.

“In a manner of speaking, I-1053 hit the ‘reset’ button on legislative approval of the imposition or increase of fees,” Even wrote, “limiting such actions to those approved anew by the legislature after the effective date of the measure.”

But the Legislature can still delegate fee-setting decisions to a board, Even wrote. No law can prevent the Legislature from delegating its authority, he said.

Still, the decision puts a hurdle in front of the Transportation Commission as it winds down the process of approving the first tolls for the state Route 520 bridge over Lake Washington – tentatively up to $3.50 each way – and new tolls for drivers on the Tacoma Narrows bridge who don’t buy a Good to Go pass or stop at a tollbooth – tentatively $5.50.

Both require final votes next month and are supposed to take effect in the spring. More immediately, the opinion by McKenna’s office could affect the commission-approved $2.50 ferry fare increase due to take effect Jan. 1.

Eyman said unelected commissioners appointed by the governor shouldn’t set fees.

“(If) I live in Gig Harbor and you’re a transportation commissioner, if I don’t like the decision you make, I can’t vote you out of office. I’m stuck,” he said.

Haugen countered that the commission process is actually fairer for the public because it holds hearings in affected places such as Gig Harbor to take comments.

Eyman said he’s confident that whatever its legal implications, the opinion by McKenna’s office, combined with a nearly 64 percent vote in favor of I-1053, will put political pressure on the Legislature to set the fees on its own.

“The sentiment is pretty clear that from now on, they’re going to have to put bills in that specifically say how much it’s going to be,” Eyman said. “I think the voters were very clear on it.”