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Wednesday, February 12, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Judge raises the bar against state taxpayers

YOU may not remove government's hand from your pocket. That is what Judge Mary Yu of King County Superior Court has rendered in regard to Tim Eyman's Initiative 776.

In the first constitutional ruling on I-776 — and probably not the last — the judge accepted two arguments, the implications of which are not comforting to citizens who would control their government's appetites.

The first is that I-776 violated the part of the state constitution that says, "No bill shall embrace more than one subject, and that shall be expressed in the title." Until now, that has been thought to mean that the law shall address only one subject. Eyman's Initiative 695 was thrown out because the law addressed two subjects: $30 car tabs and a vote on all tax increases.

The legal language in I-776 addressed only one subject. That was the repeal of local government's authority to tax cars. The effect of the initiative touched several subjects, as any law might. In particular, the repeal of Sound Transit's 0.3-percent motor vehicle excise tax would have cut the money available for light rail, because 20 percent of Sound Transit's income comes from that tax. Therefore it was argued, in this column and elsewhere, that a vote for I-776 was a vote against light rail.

That is a matter of one stone killing two birds. The constitution never forbade that. What was forbidden was for the law to have two stones in one throw.

But there is more in initiatives than law. There is political language, arm-waving language. Legally, it is no more than wind. It was in this airy section that the initiative said, "Also, dramatic changes to transportation plans and programs previously presented to voters must be resubmitted."

Must. But in what context was it? The next sentences are: "This measure provides a strong directive to all taxing districts to obtain voter approval before imposing taxes, fees and surcharges on motor vehicles. However, if the Legislature ignores this clear message, a referendum will be filed to protect the voters' rights. Politicians should just do the right thing and keep their promises."

Is that law, or is that wind? Eyman's attorney said it was wind, and Sound Transit agreed. This was about the only thing they agreed on. Yet Sound Transit argued, and the judge agreed, that voters might think those words mandated something. Therefore the initiative had two subjects and was null and void.

This was not enforcing the rule that had knocked down I-695. It was creating a new rule, raising the bar on initiatives higher than it had ever been, to the detriment of the taxpayer and the benefit of government.

The second argument was that Sound Transit and King County had pledged car-tab taxes to bondholders, and therefore the taxes couldn't be repealed. Legally, this was a stronger argument, and Eyman's attorney was able to offer nothing directly to refute it. What is important is how here, too, the ruling raised the bar against the taxpayer.

Sound Transit sold its bonds before I-776 was filed and pledged two taxes, its car-tab tax and the sales tax. The car-tab tax was the smaller of the two, but still substantial. Without the car-tab tax, Sound Transit would have paid the bonds, but it would have had to crimp its light-rail program.

King County had a weaker argument. It sold its bonds in October, after I-776 had qualified for the ballot. King County had pledged two taxes, its $15 car-tab surcharge and the general property tax. Here the car-tab tax was a drop in the bucket; its repeal would not affect the safety, rating or market value of the bonds. It appeared that the only reason the tax was pledged was to thwart Eyman and the voters of Washington.

Judge Yu said this was irrelevant: "This court declines to interfere with political choices made by the executive branch. ... "

The word is out: If government has any tax it wants to keep, hurry up and pledge it to a bond. It doesn't matter whether the bondholders need it. This is not about them. It is about the care and feeding of public agencies, and ensuring that every time taxpayers come to court trying to enforce a limit on government, they will lose.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com.

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