Tim Eyman gets another notch in his belt—his belt for losses. The Washington State Supreme Court ruled that I-776 cannot repeal a prior Sound Transit motor vehicle excise tax (MVET).
The Sound Transit MVET was authorized some four years before I-776 passed in 2002, and resulted in the issue and sale of Sound Transit construction bonds. But I-776 stated “Any motor vehicle excise tax previously imposed under the provisions of RCW 81.104.160(1) shall be repealed, terminated and expire on the effective date of this act.”
In other words, I-776 attempted to retroactively repeal a tax enacted by a regional taxing authority for a regional transportation project, even though the construction bonds were sold in 1999 and matured in 2028.
The lower courts held that this part of I-776 was unconstitutional because the bonds were an “obligation of contract” and that laws impairing such obligations are prohibited by the State Constitution. Thus, it should be no surprise that the Supreme Court voted to uphold the lower court ruling :
The intervenors (Salish Village Home Owners Association, one of its members, and Permanent Offense, sponsor of the initiative) seek reversal of the trial court ruling, contending, among other arguments, that the bonds are not impaired. The crux of the intervenors’ argument appears to be that the people, through initiative, have the right to repeal taxes, pledged as security for capital intensive projects such as highways and bridges, when they no longer want to pay such taxes. However, the contract clause of our state constitution guarantees that “No . . . law impairing the obligations of contracts shall ever be passed.” Wash Const. art. I, § 23.
The intervenors ask this court to ignore the contract clause and long-standing case law in order to repeal MVET taxes securing Sound Transit bonds. Unfortunately, the intervenors point to no authority for their contentions which are contrary to well-settled law and the plain language of our constitution.
Pretty solid logic. But, over at (un)SoundPolitics, there is an “alternative” interpretation of the ruling. Said Stefan,
The statist Alexander Court again upheld executive preference to ignore the will of the voters
I’m not sure what he means by the phrase “executive preference,” but it is very interesting that Stefan used the word statist. Statism refers to government meddling in “personal, social or economic matters.” But the real statism in this case comes from initiative (I-776)—a statewide initiative that prohibits people in smaller (regional or local) tax districts from taxing themselves. Initiative 776 attempted to retroactively repeal a regional tax that was supported by 57% percent of the voters in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. Furthermore, I-776 lost by 57% in the Sound Transit Taxing district.
“Will of the people,” indeed, Stefan. I suppose Stefan meant the will of people outside of the Sound Transit taxing district. But, why the hell should the will of people in, say, eastern Washington be considered?
The “statist Alexander Court,” by the way, is made up of eight justices
including Justice Charles Johnson. (Oops…I grabbed the wrong Justice Johnson. Justice Jim Johnson didn’t rule on the case.) Only Justice Sanders dissented.
The bizarre theory that Justice Sanders offered in his minority opinion is that
Sound Transit lacked authority to pledge to levy MVET notwithstanding possible repeal.
The State authorized Sound Transit to levy MVET. Former RCW 81.104.160(1) (1998). And it authorized Sound Transit to pledge MVET revenues. RCW 81.104.180. But it did not authorize Sound Transit to pledge to levy MVET for all time notwithstanding repeal. Accordingly, Sound Transit’s pledge to levy MVET in the future was ultra vires [beyond their power] and invalid.
Uh-huh—Like we should be surprised that a regional transit authority, with billions of dollars in transportation projects would have to issue 30 year construction bonds. In fact, the minority opinion contradicts the notion that Sound Transit’s bonds overstepped authority of the authority:
In RCW 81.112.030, the legislature authorized two or more contiguous counties each having a population of more than 400,000 persons or more to establish a “regional transit authority.” Such authority is to “develop and operate a high capacity transportation system as defined in chapter 81.104 RCW.” Id. The regional transit authority is responsible for planning, construction, operations, and funding of transit system within its area. See, e.g., RCW 81.104.070(2). The regional transit authority is authorized, after receiving voter approval, to levy taxes and issue bonds to finance the transit system. See, e.g., RCW 81.104.140, 81.112.030, .130.
More than anything else, this case brings up a perplexing political issue: since when did the Wingnuts decide that big government should override local control of taxation and spending? This seems paradoxical to me (just as I find their professed interest in small government and fiscal responsibility dripping with paradox as the federal government grows and accrues unprecedented debt under the Republicans). I mean, aren’t Wingnuts supposed to want control of taxation and spending at lower governmental levels?
I can only conclude that the disapproving tone of Stefan’s post is little more than contrarianism.