I-776: Court has duty to defend voter rights

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.

Sound Transit borrowed money from the public by selling bonds. In its bond contract, it promised the people buying its bonds it would collect the tax for them. The U.S. Constitution forbids a state or local government from interfering with contracted obligations. It is reasonable to allow Sound Transit to continue collecting the tax for those investors.

But the tax raises a lot more money than is needed to pay the investors. The question was whether Sound Transit could use car-tabs money on other things. We agree with the answer reached by Attorney General Rob McKenna: no. The tax is repealed except for that one use, to pay off the current investors.

Here is where Justice Bridge interjected to ask: "What is our authority" — meaning the court's authority — "to direct the executive branch how to spend the money?"

It is the authority, under the Constitution, to defend the law. I-776 is the law, it has been found constitutional, and it repeals car-tabs taxes in excess of $30.

The executive branch, which includes Sound Transit, must be told how to spend the money because this is not its money. It is the investors' money — and beyond that it is the taxpayers' money.

The executive branch in this case has no right to it.