Pierce County challenges I-776

Aaron 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Nov. 15 letter saying the county does not seem to have a legal basis for continuing to collect the car taxes that I-776 repealed.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 eliminating:

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 improvements.

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is unconstitutional because it asked voters to answer two questions with a single vote: Should a county road tax be repealed? Should some Sound Transit taxes be repealed?

"The guy's a moron," I-776 sponsor Tim Eyman said of Ladenburg's analysis.

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 sue.

"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 our economy."

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, he said.

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 to stop.

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.


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