Garfield Cnty. Transp. Auth. v. State

Decision Date15 October 2020
Docket NumberNo. 98320-8,98320-8
Citation196 Wash.2d 378,473 P.3d 1205
CourtWashington Supreme Court
Parties GARFIELD COUNTY TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY; King County; City of Seattle; Washington State Transit Association; Association of Washington Cities; Port of Seattle; Intercity Transit; Amalgamated Transit Union Legislative Council of Washington; and Michael Rogers, Petitioners, Washington Adapt; Transit Riders Union ; and Climate Solutions, Intervenor-Petitioners, v. STATE of Washington, Respondent, Clint Didier; Permanent Offense; Timothy D. Eyman; Michael Fagan; Jack Fagan ; and Pierce County, Intervenor-Defendants.

Eric D. Knoll Lowney, Smith & Lowney PLLC, Seattle, WA, for Appellant.

Paul J. Lawrence, Matthew J. Segal, Jessica Anne Skelton, Shae Blood, Matthew J. Segal, Pacifica Law Group LLP, David J. Hackett, David James Eldred, King County Administration Building, Erin Baine Jackson, King County Prosecutor's Office, Jenifer C. Merkel, King County Prosecutor's Office-Civil, Carolyn U. Boies, Erica Franklin, John Benjamin Kerr Schochet, Seattle City Attorneys Office, Seattle, WA, for Appellant/Cross-Respondent.

Alicia O. Young, Alicia O. Young, Robert W. Ferguson, WA State Attorney General's Office, Alan D. Copsey, Office of the Attorney General, Karl David Smith, Attorney at Law, Olympia, WA, Lauryn Kay Fraas, Attorney at Law, Seattle, WA, Stephen W. Pidgeon, Stephen Pidgeon Attorney at Law PS, Everett, WA, Frank Arthur Cornelius Jr., Frank Arthur Cornelius Jr., Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney, Daniel Ray Hamilton, Attorney at Law, Tacoma, WA, for Respondent/Cross-Appellant.

Mark Douglas Kimball, MDK Law, Bellevue, WA, for Respondent Intervenor.

Philip James Buri, Buri Funston Mumford & Furlong, PLLC, Bellingham, WA, for Amicus Curiae on behalf of International Municipal Lawyers Assoc. and Legal Scholars.

Tahl Tyson, Littler Mendelson, P.C., Jeremy Fischel Wood. Attorney at Law, Seattle, WA, Samuel Judge Stiltner, Puyallup Tribe Legal Dept., Tacoma, WA, for Amicus Curiae on behalf of The Puyallup Tribe of Indians.

Tahl Tyson, Littler Mendelson, P.C., Jeremy Fischel Wood, Attorney at Law, Seattle, WA, Brent William Bottoms, Nisqually Indian Tribe, Olympia, WA, for Amicus Curiae on behalf of The Nisqually Indian Tribe.

Tahl Tyson, Littler Mendelson, P.C., Jeremy Fischel Wood, Attorney at Law, Seattle, WA, for Amicus Curiae on behalf of The Tribal Transportation Planning Organization.

Curtis Campbell Isacke, McNaul Ebel Nawrot & Helgren PLLC, Seattle, WA, for Amicus Curiae on behalf of League of Women Voters of Washington.

Randall Keenan Gaylord, Amy Vira, San Juan County Prosecutor, Friday Harbor, WA, for Amicus Curiae on behalf of San Juan County.

González, J. ¶1 The people of our state have the power to propose and approve legislation. WASH. CONST. art. II, § 1. When the people act in their legislative capacity, they are, like any other legislative body, bound by constitutional constraints. Under our constitution, "[n]o bill shall embrace more than one subject, and that shall be expressed in the title." WASH. CONST . art. II, § 19. Initiative Measure 976 (I-976) contains more than one subject, and its subject is not accurately expressed in its title. Accordingly, it is unconstitutional.


¶2 I-976 is the latest in a series of initiatives about reducing or eliminating local motor vehicle excise taxes, including taxes that have been pledged to support major transportation projects in our state. These efforts are a response to the legislature's decision to authorize "counties in the state's most populous region to create a local agency for planning and implementing a high capacity transportation system," which ultimately resulted in the creation of Sound Transit. LAWS OF 1992, ch. 101 (largely codified in ch. 81.112 RCW); Cent. Puget Sound Reg'l Transit Auth. v. Miller , 156 Wash.2d 403, 406-07, 128 P.3d 588 (2006). Authorized regional transit authorities were empowered to ask their voters to approve transportation system proposals and financing secured by local taxes and fees, including local motor vehicle excise taxes. RCW 81.112.030, .050, .130-.150. The legislature also empowered local transportation benefit districts and other local governments to impose taxes, including motor vehicle excise taxes, and fees to fund local transportation projects and to seek voter approval for additional funding. E.g. , LAWS OF 2005, ch. 336; ch. 36.73 RCW; ch. 82.80 RCW.

¶3 A "motor vehicle excise tax" is "a tax on the privilege of relicensing a motor vehicle for use on public roadways." Sheehan v. Cent. Puget Sound Reg'l Transit Auth ., 155 Wash.2d 790, 802, 123 P.3d 88 (2005). Motor vehicle excise taxes are "based on the value of the vehicle, as set out by statute in a depreciation schedule." Black v. Cent. Puget Sound Reg'l Transit Auth., 195 Wash.2d 198, 202, 457 P.3d 453 (2020) (citing former RCW 82.44.041 (1991)). Whether they are based on the value of the vehicle or are a flat fee can make a tremendous difference in the amount an individual will pay. For example, a 1 percent tax on a vehicle worth $100,000.00 would be $1,000.00. A 1 percent excise tax on a vehicle worth $1,000.00 would be $10.00. If instead there is a flat fee of $43.25, the relicensing of every vehicle would cost the same.

¶4 Sound Transit was formed in 1993. In 1996, voters in the counties of King, Pierce, and Snohomish approved a transportation proposal and a funding plan secured by local taxes and fees, including local motor vehicle excise taxes. Id. Based on that vote, Sound Transit issued bonds secured by these local funding sources. Id. (citing Pierce County v. State , 159 Wash.2d 16, 24, 148 P.3d 1002 (2006) ( Pierce County II )). Not long after those bonds were sold, some taxpayers began challenging the taxes and fees funding Sound Transit and other locally approved transportation projects through litigation, legislation, referenda, and initiatives. See, e.g. , Pierce County II, 159 Wash.2d 16, 148 P.3d 1002 ; Sheehan , 155 Wash.2d at 795, 123 P.3d 88 ; Amalg. Transit Union Local 587 v. State , 142 Wash.2d 183, 191, 11 P.3d 762 (2000) ( ATU ).

¶5 In 2018, initiative sponsors filed at least 13 initiatives concerning motor vehicle taxes. The attorney general drafted ballot titles for at least 9 of them. After receiving these ballot titles, the sponsors chose to proceed with I-976 and a ballot title that read:

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?
Yes [ ]
No [ ]

Clerk's Papers (CP) at 1131, 316, 1253. The ballot title appears to have been drawn from the "policies and purposes" section of I-976, which reads in relevant part:

This measure and each of its provisions limit state and local taxes, fees, and other charges relating to motor vehicles. This measure would limit annual motor vehicle license fees to $30, except voter-approved charges, repeal and remove authority to impose certain vehicle taxes and charges; and base vehicle taxes on Kelley Blue Book.

CP at 1212.

¶6 The initiative passed statewide with about 53 percent of the vote, though it was rejected by about 53 percent of the voters in the Sound Transit region, about 60 percent of King County voters, and about 70 percent of San Juan voters, who depend heavily on ferries funded by motor vehicle excise taxes.

¶7 Several counties, cities, associations and private citizens (collectively challengers) challenged I-976's constitutionality. These challengers argued that I-976 violated many provisions of our state constitution. They argued that I-976 contained multiple subjects in violation of article II, section 19 ’s single subject requirement. They also argued I-976 violated section 19 ’s subject-in-title requirement because the ballot title falsely suggested voter-approved motor vehicle taxes would not be repealed. In fact, the initiative repealed both current voter-approved taxes and fees, and the existing statutory mechanism for voter approval in the future. Among many other things, plaintiffs also argued that the ballot title falsely suggested vehicle license registration fees would be reduced to $30.00 when, in fact, the lowest would be $43.25.

¶8 The challengers successfully sought a preliminary injunction in King County Superior Court to block its implementation. The trial judge initially concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on the grounds that the ballot title was misleading. Meanwhile, several parties, including the initiative sponsors, a group of taxpayers, Pierce County, transit groups, and environmental groups were granted leave to intervene.

¶9 Most parties moved for summary judgment. At summary judgment, the trial judge largely upheld the initiative. The trial judge did find that the initiative violated the privileges and immunities clause of the state constitution by giving Kelley Blue Book a legislative privilege, but also that those provisions were severable. Those provisions would have replaced a statutory depreciation schedule for valuing vehicles with the values established by Kelley Blue Book. LAWS OF 2020, ch. 1, § 8 (I-976). The trial judge allowed further factual development on the city of Burien's impairment of contract claim under article I, section 23. The primary parties stipulated that direct review of the remaining issues was appropriate, and we accepted review. Amicus briefs in support of the challengers have been filed by the International Municipal Lawyers Association and Legal Scholars; San Juan County; the League of Women Voters of Washington; and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, the Nisqually Indian Tribe, and the Tribal Transportation Planning Organization Transit Subcommittee.


¶10 This case is here on appeal from summary judgment. Our review is de novo. Wash....

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