WASC and our three co-plaintiff counties filed in King County Superior Court on December 11, 2019, challenging that SB 5472 (Ballot Drop Box Bill) was a violation of RCW 43.135.060, Prohibition of new or expanded programs without full reimbursement.

October 14, 2020, King County Superior Court Judge Nelson Lee ruled in a Partial Summary Judgment, that SB 5472’s requirement to significantly increase the number of ballot drop boxes statewide at an estimated capital cost of over one million dollars plus yearly operating and maintenance costs, “was an unfunded mandate pursuant to RCW 43.135.060.” On direct appeal, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled today and reversed this lower court ruling, finding that:

  • RCW 29A.04.430 was the controlling statute for election cost reimbursement and not the unfunded mandate statute, RCW 43.135.060.
  • Counties are entitled to reimbursement only for the State’s proportional share of costs.
  • The 2020 legislative amendments to RCW 29A.04.430 do not violate Article II, Section 37.
  • Counties do not have a vested right to full reimbursement (even though costs were incurred).
  • The case is remanded to King County Superior Court for further proceedings.

Briefly, the Court’s ruling on RCW 29A.04.430 (Section 430) was that:

[The Ballot Drop Box Bill’s] control over the unfunded mandate statute and provides reimbursement only of the State’s proportional share for the costs of compliance with the ballot box statute.

They further held that the 2020 legislative amendment (that retroactively excluded the newly required ballot boxes from the unfunded mandate statute) did not violate the constitution and that the counties cannot claim any vested right that would require them to invalidate the retroactivity of the section.

In more detail, the Court held that Section 430 is a specific statute and controls the extent of election cost reimbursement over the general unfunded mandate statute. “In other words, Section 430 explains that partial reimbursement satisfies the State’s obligation with regard to the unfunded mandate statute,” even though the ballot box statute would otherwise be considered an unfunded mandate absent proper funding.

Finally, the Court ruled that the retroactive effect of the legislation was valid because counties do not have a vested right to full reimbursement. The Court determined that a vested right only exists if secured by a final judgment, exists in a contractual agreement, or upon the completion of the statutory requirements in certain situations. The latter would seem to apply to the counties that had fully completed the installation and billed the state, but the Court disagreed stating, “there is no way for us to determine whether the Counties have in fact completed the statutory requirements such that their rights could automatically vest upon completion.” Based on a 1981 Attorney General’s Opinion, they said, “the right to reimbursement pursuant to the unfunded mandate statute could become vested only upon a final judgment confirming that the unfunded mandate statute is applicable.”

The Counties’ claim of entitlement to full reimbursement pursuant to the unfunded mandate statute is best described as a mere expectation. They immediately complied with the ballot box statute, assuming that the unfunded mandate statute would apply and would require the State to provide full reimbursement. Without a more definite entitlement, such as a final judgement, contract, or specific statutory requirements for relief, it cannot be said that the Counties had a vested right to full reimbursement.

The Counties had no right to full reimbursement and thus such “rights” could not be interfered with by the enactment of retroactive legislation. The Legislature acted within its authority to limit the applicability of the unfunded mandate statute. Therefore, the retroactive effect of Section 430 is valid.

Under this ruling, the counties are entitled only to reimbursement for the State’s proportional share of the costs. The entire Supreme Court opinion may be found here.