by Hunter Ferguson

Yesterday, the Washington State Supreme Court heard oral argument in Washington Association for Substance Abuse & Violence Prevention v. State, concerning the constitutionality of I-1183. WASAVP contends that I-1183 violates Article II, § 19 of the Washington Constitution in two ways: (1) the initiative violates the “single-subject rule,” by including a $10 million earmark along with provisions to privatize the sale of spirits and also by allowing for price variability in the sale of wine; and (2) the initiative violates the “subject-in-title rule” because, although the title refers to license fees to be imposed on sellers, in reality, such fees resemble taxes because they are levied as a proportion of sales. These arguments, and the responses of the State and the Costco-led intervenors were discussed in earlier blog posts here and here. Copies of the briefing filed in the Supreme Court can be found here: 1, 2, 3, 4. A recording of the hearing can be viewed here.

On the single-subject issue, the Court sought clarity on the framework for analyzing whether there is rational unity between the different provisions in the initiative. In particular, Justice Stephens pressed counsel on whether the issue of rational unity boiled down to whether there is a rational basis for the $10 million earmark, i.e., even though such funds are not specifically allocated to alcohol-related law enforcement, is there nonetheless rational unity because such funds might be spent in connection with alcohol-related issues. WASAVP responded, no, that rational unity required an specific expenditure requirement. The Court seemed unmoved by that position, especially in light of the past practice of making general appropriations from the Liquor Revolving Fund. 

On the subject-in-title issue, Justice Wiggins expressed skepticism about referring to the license fee as such when the revenue-raising scheme so closely resembles a tax. Attorneys for the State and the intervenors urged the Court that use of the term fee was proper and that the Court need not decide whether the “fee” is actually a “tax” so long as it was clear to voters what type of revenue scheme would be created. WASAVP’s attorney, of course, pointed that the easiest way to ensure clear understanding was to use the word tax.

I-1183 is set to take effect on June 1. The Court is expected to issue its opinion before that date.