Pierce County challenges I-776
Corvin and David Quigg; The News Tribune
Pierce County will file a lawsuit challenging Initiative 776, the
voter-approved statewide measure intended to kill the car taxes that
help pay for mass transit and local road projects.
"We think the initiative is unconstitutional," county spokesman
Ron Klein said Thursday.
The Pierce County Council approved challenging Initiative 776 a few
days after the state Attorney General's Office issued a Nov. 15 letter
saying the county does not seem to have a legal basis for continuing
to collect the car taxes that I-776 repealed.
"The AG's opinion is indeed just an opinion," Klein said.
I-776, approved by 51 percent of voters statewide, caps the cost of
registering cars, light trucks and light buses at $30 per year by
ĽA 0.3 percent vehicle-excise tax for Sound Transit that's paid in
most parts of Pierce, King and Snohomish counties.
ĽA $15-per-vehicle fee that city and county governments in Pierce,
King, Snohomish and Douglas counties spend on transportation projects.
Meanwhile, King County also will challenge I-776, King County Executive
Ron Sims announced Thursday. It is unclear what Snohomish County will
do. Voters in all three counties approved the initiative that created
Sound Transit in 1996. Plans call for a regional system to include
light rail, Sounder commuter trains, express buses and other transportation
Nearly 56 percent of Pierce County voters supported I-776.
The loss of the $15 fee would cost the county and its cities an estimated
$79 million in revenue for transportation over the next decade, according
to the state Office of Financial Management.
Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg said the county will be "standing
up for voter rights" by challenging I-776. Ladenburg, the county's
former prosecuting attorney, said the initiative is unconstitutional
because it asked voters to answer two questions with a single vote:
Should a county road tax be repealed? Should some Sound Transit taxes
"The guy's a moron," I-776 sponsor Tim Eyman said of Ladenburg's
The courts have ruled two previous Eyman initiatives unconstitutional.
Eyman insists I-776 should survive legal challenges.
In the Pierce County Council's vote to challenge I-776, Councilman
Kevin Wimsett (D-Spanaway) cast the one "no" vote. Councilwoman
Karen Biskey (R-Gig Harbor) abstained.
By challenging the initiative, Wimsett said, the county only feeds
the notion that government never listens to people.
"It's pretty clear that folks are sending a message," he
said. "They don't like the fact that Sound Transit has turned
into a boondoggle."
Councilman Pat O'Malley (R-Lakewood) said he reluctantly voted to
"It's clear that voters don't like the tax, but we are in such
a dire strait to find some means to fund transportation," he
said. "Frankly, I'm very concerned about the business climate
in this state. I'm alarmed at the situation at Boeing, which drives
Although Pierce and King counties are planning lawsuits, the Sound
Transit board has not yet decided what to do about its portion of
the car tax, the loss of which would cost the agency an estimated
$699 million. The board spent an hour in closed-door deliberations
Thursday discussing its own legal strategy. Sims, the board's chairman,
said, "there are strongly held views within this board."
The board will try to reach consensus on I-776 over the next few weeks,
I-776 targeted 20 percent of Sound Transit's funding. Sound Transit
argues that the state and U.S. constitutions shield it from the initiative
because the repealed taxes have been pledged to repay bonds. The state
has agreed to collect Sound Transit's taxes unless a court tells it
Eyman saw good news in the Sound Transit board's failure to agree
on a lawsuit.
"Could there be dissension in the ranks?" he said. "Suing
voters. Could it not be as popular as they once thought?"
I-776 becomes law Dec. 5.