On Tuesday, the Seattle Times editorial board came out demanding that the Supreme Court force Sound Transit to pay off its bonds and stop collecting car tab fees.
Justice Bobbe Bridge of the Washington Supreme Court raised a question in oral argument last Tuesday about what power the court has to protect the rights of voters. The answer should be clear enough. It has the same power it has to protect the rights of investors.
The question involves Initiative 776, which the voters of Washington approved in 2002. This was one of Tim Eyman’s efforts to get the cost of license tabs down to $30. This page did not support I-776, but the voters did, and the question now is to what extent Sound Transit is permitted to ignore that vote. To a certain extent, we believe Sound Transit is exempt from a strict interpretation of I-776, but not totally, and not forever.
But before getting so uppity about the “rights of voters” and all that, I wonder if the Times should have asked itself a couple of questions? Like… the rights of which voters? And… what exactly are these rights?
On its surface, I-776 was a statewide initiative to repeal car tab fees that were only be levied in a handful of Western WA counties. But Timmy was always very clear about its primary purpose: to kill Sound Transit’s light rail. And while it narrowly passed in the parts of the state where it had no impact, the initiative was actually defeated by a healthy 12-point margin within the Sound Transit taxing districts.
So when the Times accuses Sound Transit of ignoring voters, exactly which voters are they talking about? The voters outside of Sound Transit’s district, who voted to deny local residents the right to tax themselves to build a local transit project? Or the voters within Sound Transit’s district… the voters the board actually represents… those local voters who first voted to approve the bonds to build light rail, and then overwhelmingly voted against an initiative to stop it?
The majority of voters paying these car tab fees have twice voted to support them, so if the Times intends to make some kind of high-minded defense of the “rights of voters,” a good argument can be made that they’ve come down on the wrong side of the debate.
Of course, the law is the law, but even there the Times’ logic is muddled. Yes… the “rights of voters” must be honored and protected, but these rights under the initiative process are limited.
It is well established that the power of initiative is limited to measures that are “legislative” in nature, rather than “administrative.” Ruano v. Spellman defines the distinction as such: a legislative measure “is one to make new law or declare new policy,” whereas an administrative measure is one “merely to carry out and execute law or policy already in existence.”
Ruano v. Spellman dates back to 1973, and concerns a King County initiative that sought to prevent construction of the Kingdome, after voters had approved the stadium, and $10 million in bonds had been issued. The courts ruled that the initiative addressed administrative issues. It was removed from the ballot.
“It must be concluded that only administrative decisions remained. By its vote the electorate had declared its legislative policy… to finance it by bonds, and to repay those bonds from specified sources. The county and its agents in making those expenditures simply were executing an already adopted legislative determination.”
Sound familiar? Sound Transit’s light rail was also approved by voters. Hundreds of millions in bonds had been issued, and it doesn’t take a lawyer to see the parallels. It may be that voters simply don’t have the right via initiative to tell Sound Transit to pay off these bonds. And neither does the court.
So while I appreciate the Times noble efforts to protect my rights, I think their advocacy is misplaced. The Times has an established history of attempting to influence the courts, but personally, I’ve always felt that judicial decisions should be based purely on statute and the constitution, free from the pressure generated by special interest groups like, you know… editorial boards.
And I’m guessing that on this point, the courts are in total agreement.