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Washington Supreme Court Finds I-976 Unconstitutional

Washington Supreme Court Finds I-976 Unconstitutional

The Washington Supreme Court (Court) struck down Initiative Measure 976 (I-976), which was passed by voters last year, as unconstitutional in an October 15, 2020 decision. This blog provides a brief overview of the ruling.

 I-976 is the measure that (among other things) would have:

  1. Reduced or eliminated local motor vehicle excise taxes;
  2. Changed the formula by which vehicles are valued for the purpose of calculating such taxes; and
  3. Required Sound Transit to retire early, defease, or refinance existing bonds funded by previously voter-approved special motor vehicle excise tax funds if permissible under the bond contracts.

The Court found I-976 violates Article 2, Section 19 of the Washington Constitution, which states that “[n]o bill shall embrace more than one subject, and that shall be expressed in the title.” First, the Court determined that I-976 violates the “one subject” provision because the requirement that Sound Transit retire, defease, or refinance bonds is not sufficiently related to the portions of I-976 that limit vehicle taxes and fees. 

Second, the Court ruled that I-976 violates the “subject in title” requirement of Article 2, Section 19 because the ballot title misleadingly suggested that voter-approved taxes would survive passage of I-976 and that voters would retain the ability to approve tax increases in the future.  In fact, under I-976, the previous voter-approved taxes would not have survived and the statutes providing for voter-approved tax increases would have been repealed.

The Court’s decision remands the case to the trial court “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” but from a practical standpoint, the decision appears to be final with respect to the invalidity of I-976.  The issue of car tab fees is likely to be the subject of legislative proposals in the next session.  Individual legislators have already indicated an intent to introduce car tab bills, as noted in this Seattle Times article.  Note that in 2000, the state legislature adopted a measure limiting car tab fees to $30 in the aftermath of the Washington Supreme Court declaring I-695 unconstitutional. 

In light of the decision, it would appear that local governments may now spend car tax revenues, but specific questions on this should be directed to legal counsel. 

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Oskar Rey

Oskar Rey has practiced municipal law since 1995 and served as Assistant City Attorney for the City of Kirkland from 2005 to 2016, where he worked on a wide range of municipal topics, including land use, public records, and public works. Oskar is a life-long resident of Washington and graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 1992.