State's high court hears arguments over Initiative 747
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — For a guy who is so often at odds with the courts, anti-tax crusader Tim Eyman seemed to be having a lot of fun Tuesday as the state Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of his Initiative 747.
As his opponents made their case that voters had been duped into approving the property-tax limit, a fidgety Eyman sat on the edge of his front-row seat, barely able to contain himself. His face lit up in a silent guffaw when one justice began grilling his opponents' lawyer.
"I just wanted to jump up and yell, 'Yeah, praise be,' " said Eyman, whose bright-orange Tommy Bahama sweater stood out in a room full of suits and robes.
In 2001, voters overwhelmingly approved I-747, which limited increases in state and local property-tax collections to 1 percent a year, unless voters approved more. The state estimates that in the six years since it passed, the measure has blocked an estimated $1.6 billion in property-tax increases.
Under the limit, some local governments have complained that they cannot keep up with the ever-rising cost of services.
Last summer, I-747 was ruled unconstitutional by a King County judge. But most cities, counties and other local taxing districts have been waiting to hear what happens with that ruling before going beyond the 1 percent cap.
In striking down I-747, King County Superior Court Judge Mary Roberts said the initiative was deceptive.
Another Eyman initiative that passed the previous year, I-722, called for capping property-tax increases at 2 percent. So, Roberts ruled, many voters believed I-747 would only reduce the tax-increase cap from 2 percent to 1 percent.
But by the time I-747 went to the voters, courts had tossed out I-722 for violating a provision in the state constitution that limits laws to a single subject, and the state effectively had gone back to its previous cap — 6 percent. Roberts said voters were not aware that they were actually considering a much more dramatic limit.
The coalition that sued to overturn I-747, including Whitman County and groups that advocate for the poor, argued in a brief to the Supreme Court that voters had been "hoodwinked into passing I-747."
"Every citizen has the right to accurate information on the day they vote," attorney Knoll Lowney told the court Tuesday. "Voters are not second-class lawmakers."
Eyman acknowledges that he filed I-747 as a backup in case I-722 was ultimately overturned. But he scoffed at the argument that he deceived voters.
"The voters knew exactly what the final destination was. ... Everyone knew the limit was going to be 1 percent," he said after the hearing.
The state, which is appealing Roberts' decision, argues it is unreasonable to expect that initiative sponsors can predict what the status of a law will be by the time their measure reaches the voters.
Such a standard would "seriously undermine the initiative process," Cameron Comfort, senior assistant attorney general, told the court.
While a couple of justices seemed sympathetic to the argument that voters were not adequately informed on I-747, others questioned whether it even mattered that I-722 was invalid when voters took up I-747.
"The Legislature can amend an unconstitutional law. Why can't the people?" Justice Richard Sanders asked Lowney.
While Eyman has had success at the ballot box, his track record in court is shaky. Aside from I-722, Eyman's I-695 — to limit car-tab fees — was ruled unconstitutional by the high court.
After I-695 was struck down, state lawmakers rescued it by passing its provisions into law.
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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