(CN) — A conservative advocacy group lost its challenge to overturn a recent Washington state transportation resource bill on Friday after a state judge ruled that the act’s broad provisions and general title are constitutionally sound.
The ruling from Thurston County Superior Court Judge Mary Sue Wilson arrived shortly after an oral argument for summary judgment involving Senate Bill 5974 or “Addressing transportation resources” — a broad-reaching bill that joined Senate Bill 5975 in encompassing the “Move Ahead Washington” transportation package in 2022.
Under SB 5974, a plethora of provisions fund large-scale highway projects, a new bridge between Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, and invest billions more into non-vehicular transportation over the next 15 years. The bill aligns with Washington’s recent legislative initiatives to reduce 95% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, though critics have opposed the bill’s increased fees for driver’s licenses and correlate its enactment with Washington’s jump in gas prices this year.
Critics also oppose bill provisions that authorize Washington’s Department of Ecology to set carbon fuel standards and prohibit gas-powered vehicles by 2030 — critics like the group Citizen Action Defense, which filed a lawsuit on behalf of Oak Harbor Freight Lines, Doriot Construction and Doriot’s founder, Tracy Doriot, in January 2023 to challenge the bill under the Washington Constitution.
The complaint explains how Article II, Section 19 of the Washington Constitution prohibits bills from embracing more than one subject and bills that do not include its subject matter within its title. The section’s purpose is to prevent the Legislature from pushing laws attached to other legislation and assure lawmakers and the public are aware of what a bill contains.
The plaintiffs argue the bill contains several discrete, unrelated subjects from “appropriations to reduce stormwater runoff from roads and existing infrastructure” to “revisions to local pilot programs allowing use to automated traffic safety cameras,” subjects they say lack rational unity because none of them are necessary to implement the other.
“The Legislature should have addressed each of these different problems in separate legislative measures as required by the Constitution,” plaintiff attorney Callie Castillo said Friday, adding that the court cannot decide what provisions legislators would have supported had its measures not been “cobbled together.”
During the 2022 legislative session, Washington House Republicans accused Democrats of presenting the transportation package without their consultation. House Republicans reportedly opposed both bills, citing that the $17 billion transportation package raises fees, lacks full state support and fails to prioritize preservation and maintenance while raiding the state’s public works assistant account.
The bill’s title is also vague, Castillo said, stating it does not give “adequate notice of the vast scope, purpose and contents of the bill.” In the complaint, plaintiffs argue that its title could reference “financial sources for Washington transportation projects” or “natural sources of fuel as are used for transportation.”
Judge Wilson ultimately disagreed, siding with the state alongside the Legislature, Governor Jay Inslee and intervenors King County and the Washington State Transit Authority.
During the state’s arguments, Deputy Solicitor General Alicia Young explained that the Legislature can combine issues and provisions to address a common goal and that the bill’s measures represent forward-looking, general provisions that support Washington’s transportation resources.
Transit Authority attorney Paul Lawrence added to this point, stating the Washington Legislature has made climate impacts a significant aspect of their work.
“Transportation is specifically identified as an area that contributes significantly to the state's climate impacts,” Lawrence said, adding that there’s no doubt that the bill’s issues — whether it's transit, cars or polluted stormwater runoff — are all attempting to address climate impacts.
The plaintiffs, Young said, “are focusing on the trees and not the forest.”
“You can’t divorce the transportation system from its critical components, which include sustainability, efficiency, safety and so forth,” Young added, echoing a similar sentiment Inslee made when signing the bill into law.
Before dismissing the case, Wilson explained that, in analyzing the bill’s challenged subsections and its purpose, “the court finds as a matter of law that there is rational unity between the general subject and the incidental subdivisions.”
The judge also affirmed Young’s point that the Legislature can “have broad omnibus bills that cover a general topic, as the Legislature did here and within it.”
In an email with Courthouse News on Friday, Citizen Action's executive director Jackson Maynard expressed disappointment over the ruling.
"The courts have been very clear in the past adhering to the single subject in legislation and initiatives. We're simply asking to apply that same historical logic here," Maynard wrote. "We are disappointed in the courts ruling. We respectfully disagree and are considering every option, including and especially, direct appeal to the state Supreme Court."Follow @alannamayhampdx
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