I-695 ruling saves $30 tabs, sets off scramble in Olympia

OLYMPIA - A judge's ruling yesterday that obliterated Initiative 695 preserves $30 car tabs for now but sent lawmakers and the governor into a frenzy to demonstrate allegiance to the anti-tax spirit of the initiative.

The decision by King County Superior Court Judge Robert Alsdorf adds a new dynamic to a legislative session already marked by lawmakers' attempts to show voters they got the message of I-695. The law has affected budget negotiations, which are now stymied, and propelled talk of a property-tax cut to head off yet another citizens initiative.

Gov. Gary Locke called a news conference within hours of the ruling, demanding the Legislature act in special session to remove any doubt in voters' minds that the cheap, flat-tax car tabs are here to stay.

"It's important for the Legislature to act immediately on this to remove any uncertainty in the minds of the citizens of the state of Washington, to make it very clear that we will carry out Initiative 695," he said.

Republicans will be on the Capitol steps today with a pledge for members to sign: "As a member of the Washington state Legislature I am committed to enacting the tax cut approved (by voters)."

I-695 wiped out the state's lucrative auto-license-taxing system and replaced it with the cheaper fees, eliminating $750 million a year from the state's budget.

Alsdorf ruled the initiative violated the state constitution because, among other things, it was contrary to the provision that restricts laws and initiatives to one subject and granted voters permanent referendum powers to vote on all tax and fee increases.

He left intact the $30 license-tab fees temporarily because he said it would be too disruptive to go back to the old high-priced system before the state Supreme Court acts this summer.

The other part of the measure that requires public votes for fee and tax increases was thrown out.

The state Attorney General's Office and attorneys for initiative sponsor Tim Eyman plan to appeal to the Supreme Court.

In Olympia yesterday, everyone agreed that no matter what the Supreme Court might do this summer, the $30 car tabs are here to stay, even if it means the Legislature has to pass a law to do it.

But there is uncertainty over the fate of I-695's other major provision, giving voters the right to approve all tax and fee increases.

Cities and counties are legally free now to start raising taxes and fees without voter approval, if they so choose. They say they won't.

And because lawmakers have signaled they will stick with the $30 car tabs - with or without I-695 - many cities and counties will still have to deal with budget cuts for transit, police and fire services. Or the Legislature must come up with $750 million to replace lost tax revenues.

Locke said he supports giving voters the OK on major tax increases. But he doesn't think I-695 voters wanted power over all fee increases.

Another Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Sid Snyder of Long Beach, disagreed and said he opposes the public-vote provision entirely because it "restricts democratic government."

"People elect people to represent them," Snyder said. "We shouldn't put a referendum on every decision. If people don't like it, they can throw us out of office."

Republicans hope to pass legislation giving voters the power to vote on every tax and fee increase.

"We believe it is good government to enact the will of the people," said House Republican Co-Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee. "The real message (of I-695) is, `We are tired of being ignored in the process. . . . If you want to raise our taxes at least you should ask us.' "

But the House's tax expert, Finance Committee Chairman Brian Thomas, R-Renton, conceded the bill Republicans were pushing to fix that problem would not pass constitutional muster.

Democratic Sen. Valoria Loveland, the Senate budget writer and the most powerful lawmaker on fiscal matters, said she wants lawmakers to wait until the Supreme Court acts.

She didn't understand the rush to sanctify the $30 license fees and was clearly unhappy at Locke's demands that lawmakers act immediately. Alsdorf's ruling, after all, has no effect on the Legislature's protracted budget negotiations.

No legislator is going to propose increasing car taxes, Loveland predicted. And - despite the legal green light from Alsdorf - no state lawmaker or city or county official will suggest a tax or fee increase without a public vote, she said.

"I don't see that it's necessary to do anything at all," Loveland said. "I would rather the Supreme Court make its ruling and then we know what the law is."

Still, Senate Republicans wanted to act immediately. Democrats, who control the Senate, stopped a move to bring a moribund bill to preserve the car-tax cut to a vote.

"If you vote against this, you have voted against the will of the people of this state," Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, snapped at her colleagues on the Senate floor. "Every campaign brochure is going to be mentioning this vote."

She said she would go around the state to campaign against individual senators who are up for re-election in November and who voted against the motion.

Minutes after word of the court ruling reached the Capitol, a breathless Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, emerged on the House floor clutching a draft of a measure that would ensure $30 tabs aren't increased.

"Here's the bill!" he said, racing off in search of other lawmakers to sign on to the measure with him.

Passing a law in keeping with the public-vote clause of I-695 might be tricky. Alsdorf ruled that if voters are to be given power to approve every tax increase, the state constitution must be amended.

To do that, lawmakers would have to vote by a two-thirds majority to place a proposed amendment on a statewide ballot. That majority would be difficult to achieve in the Senate or the House.

At his news conference, the governor said voters were clear that they hated the high car-tab fees, but he read mixed messages in the section requiring votes for tax and fee increases.

"I think clearly the voters do want to be able to vote on major taxes, and it's something that we should discuss," Locke said. ". . . I just don't believe the voters want to have a vote on every library fine, or every charge for photocopying."

He would not say what his preference would be.

House Democratic Co-Speaker Frank Chopp said he would support mandating public votes for at least some tax and fee increases.

Local governments probably won't rush to raise taxes without voter approval until after the Supreme Court decision.

"As a practical matter I don't think very many of our members will try raising taxes right away until the dust settles," said Jim Justin, assistant director of the Association of Washington Cities. "It's early."

Some hoped the voter-approval requirement for tax and fee increases would not withstand the continuing legal challenge.

"I doubt that most people really believed they should have the right to vote on every little fee that's out there," said Bill Vogler, interim executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties.