OLYMPIA -- The coalition controlling the Senate released a $12 billion transportation package that would raise gasoline taxes by 11.5 cents over three years and finish several major projects, including Spokane's North-South Freeway.
They said they have support from 13 of their members -- or half the ruling caucus -- meaning they'd need 17 votes from minority Democrats to pass the spending package and its accompanying bonds.
At a lunchtime press conference, a group of eight senators, including Spokane Republican Mike Baumgartner, called for quick negotiations with House Democrats and Gov. Jay Inslee to try to find a package that can get super majority support in both chambers. The Senate proposal differs significantly from the House plan in spending for some projects and calls for changes in the way the state plans, builds and taxes transportation projects. Among those changes, an end to sales tax on those projects, which is a financial hit to the state's general fund.
Majority Coalition Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said removing the sales tax lowers the price of the project, and the general fund will more than make up the loss through the added economic development the projects will generate. The reforms are necessary to restore the public's faith after some high profile problems with big projects like the 520 bridge and the Alaska Way tunnel.
The package would spend $750 million to finish the North-South Freeway, which is also called the North Spokane Corridor, so it connects with Interstate 90. By building that and other large projects in phases, the state doesn't see the economic impact of a completed project, Republicans argued.
The North-South Freeway has been under construction for years, and under discussion for decades. Baumgartner said he grew up believing the road "lives in the land of fairies and flying unicorns."
"I will not support a package that does not allow full funding for the North-South Freeway to come to I-90," he said.
Also on the project list are $15 million for widening State Route 904 from Cheney to I-90, and $11.7 million to add a passing lane on U.S. 195 between Colfax and Spangle.
The gasoline tax would go up 4 cents next year, 4 cents in 2016 and 3.5 cents in 2017. The proposal doesn't have language that automatically sends it to the ballot, but senators said it could easily wind up there.
They challenged House Democrats and Inslee to meet with them next Wednesday morning to begin negotiations. Tom said he "absolutely" believed a transportation package could be passed in the current legislative session, which is now slightly more than half over.
House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, cast doubt on the prediction, however. She released a statement that described the package as undoing work from last year and putting "untested ideas" on the table. And the package doesn't have clear support from the coalition she added.
"We remain insistent that the Senate Majority either pass its proposal or provide a clear demonstrations that it has enough votes to pass," she said. "We look forward to resuming negotiations once the Senate Majority has finished negotiation among itself."