Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

AGLO 1979 No. 7 -
Attorney General Slade Gorton


The State Department of Licensing is not presently authorized by law to refund either a lawfully paid motor vehicle license fee or the accompanying motor vehicle excise tax payment made by a vehicle owner prior to the beginning of the new registration year for which the payments are made simply because, prior to the beginning of the new registration year, the vehicle is destroyed or is removed from the state and licensed in another jurisdiction.

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                                                                 January 26, 1979

Honorable Wayne Ehlers
State Representative, 2nd Dist.
410 House Office Building
Olympia, Washington 98504                                                                                                                 Cite as:  AGLO 1979 No. 7

Dear Sir:

            By recent letter you requested our opinion on the following question:

            "Under existing law, is the Department of Licensing prohibited from refunding all or part of the vehicle license fee collected pursuant to chapter 47.16 RCW or the motor vehicle excise tax pursuant to chapter 82.44 RCW under the following circumstances.  The vehicle owner pays the fee and tax prior to the beginning of the new registration year for which the vehicle license is being renewed and, also prior to the beginning of the new registration year, the vehicle is destroyed (or removed from the state and licensed in another jurisdiction)?

            We answer your question in the manner set forth in our analysis.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]


            Insofar as the motor vehicle license fee aspect of your question is concerned, the applicable statute is RCW 46.16.060.  This statute reads, in material part, as follows:

            "Except as otherwise specifically provided by law for the licensing of vehicles, there shall be paid and collected annually for each registration yearor fractional part thereof and upon each vehicle a license fee or, if the vehicle was previously licensed in this state and has not been registered in another jurisdiction in the intervening period, a renewal license fee.  Such license fee shall be in the sum of thirteen dollars and forty cents, and such renewal fee shall be in the sum of nine dollars and forty cents: . . ." (Emphasis supplied)

            With regard to the motor vehicle excise tax, the governing statute is RCW 82.44.020 which reads as follows:

            "(1) An excise tax is imposed for the privilege of using in the state any motor vehicle, except those operated under dealer's licensees.  The annual amount of such excise shall be two percent of the fair market value of such vehicle.

            "(2) From and after August 1, 1978 and until August 1, 2008, an additional excise tax is imposed, in addition to any other tax imposed by this section, for the privilege of using in the state any such motor vehicle, and the annual amount of such additional excise shall be two-tenths of one percent of the fair market value of such vehicle.

            "(3) The department of motor vehicles and county auditors shall collect the additional tax imposed by subsection (2) of this section for any registration year for the months of that registration year in which such additional tax is effective, and in the same manner and at the same time as the tax imposed by subsection (1) of this section.

            "(4) In no case shall the total tax be less than two dollars."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

            In direct answer to your question there is, at present, no statutory prohibition against a refund of either the license fee or the motor vehicle excise tax under the factual circumstances therein described.  This does not, however, mean that a refund of either of the two payments may legally be made for, under established principals of public law the mere absence of a statutory prohibition is not determinative of a question such as this.  The governing rule, as set forth in such cases as State ex rel. Eastvold v. Maybury, 49 Wn.2d 533, 304 P.2d 663 (1956), andState ex rel. Holcomb v. Armstrong, 39 Wn.2d 860, 239 P.2d 545 (1952), is that state agencies have only those powers which have been granted to them by the legislature, either expressly or by necessary implication.  Thus, in order to be able to make a refund of given license fees or taxes an agency must be able to point to some statutory provision authorizing this to be done.  There is, however, at present no such statutory authority for the refunding of motor vehicle license fees or motor vehicle excise taxes lawfully, and not erroneously, paid‑-presumably in response to standard departmental billing procedures‑-by a motor vehicle owner.1/  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            We trust the foregoing will be of some assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Deputy Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

1/See, however, RCW 46.68.010 which now provides for the refunding of erroneously paid license fees.   An amendment to this section is currently pending before the state senate in the form of SB 2069 which, if enacted, would add the following proviso to the law:

            "A renewal license fee paid prior to the actual expiration date of the license being renewed shall be deemed to be erroneously paid if the vehicle for which the renewal license is being purchased is destroyed or permanently removed from the state prior to the beginning date of the registration period for which the renewal fee is being paid."

See also, RCW 82.44.120 which provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

            "Whenever any person has paid a motor vehicle license fee, and together therewith has paid an excise tax imposed under the provisions of this chapter, and the director of motor vehicles determines that the payor is entitled to a refund of the entire amount of the license fee as provided by law, then he shall also be entitled to a refund of the entire excise tax collected under the provisions of this chapter."