House Republicans on Thursday unveiled a transportation budget proposal that would ask voters to OK higher gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees.
The 4 cents a gallon tax hike would raise an estimated $154 million over the next two years to pay for highway improvements, new ferries for Puget Sound and more car pool and bus lanes.
The current gasoline tax is 23 cents. The tax increase would cost the average motorist about $24 a year.
The $3 vehicle registration fee increase would raise $22 million, which would go to the State Patrol for pay raises and 50 additional troopers over the next two years.
Democratic leaders wasted no time in sniping at the Republicans, who have been pushing tax and spending cuts.
“It’s tax cuts for big business, but at the same time for the average Joe out there, you’ve got to pay more,” said Senate majority leader Marcus Gaspard, D-Puyallup.
“The public doesn’t want to see huge tax cuts in one place and tax increases in another,” he said.
Republican leaders said their $3.3 billion budget proposal gives voters a choice. If people don’t want the new taxes and fees, the GOP has prepared a more frugal, $3 billion version of the budget.
“We will be happy to have the voters have the final say on this budget,” said Rep. Karen Schmidt, R-Bainbridge Island, who chairs the House Transportation Committee.
In Spokane, the widening of Division Street would continue under the GOP proposal with or without additional gas taxes.
However, the budget doesn’t include a request by the state Transportation Department for $7 million to begin building an Interstate 90 interchange at Sprague Avenue.
The project wasn’t included in Gov. Mike Lowry’s budget proposal either.
Rep. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, the area’s only representative on the 27-member Transportation Committee, said she opposes the gas tax hike and the Republicans’ transportation priorities in general.
“In a city like Spokane, we contribute more than we get back,” Brown said of gasoline taxes.
She said a chunk of the 4-cent increase - one quarter of a cent - would pay for a single highway project near Auburn.
Schmidt admitted the higher taxes might be hard to sell in the current political climate. The trick, she said, is to show voters the money would improve roads in their area.
Lowry said he opposes the GOP proposal, even though two years ago he asked for a much larger gas tax increase. The difference, Lowry said, is that the Republican tax hike would devote too much money to highways and not enough to other ways of getting around.
GOP leaders point out that, even with the gas tax increase, they would spend $104 million less over the next two years than the state did on transportation in the 1993-95 biennium. Those savings would come from trimming staff at the Transportation Department and cutting funding for other agencies.
For example, state parks officials wouldn’t get money they want to improve roads in state parks, and the prison at McNeil Island wouldn’t get to replace its aging ferry.
Schmidt also said Lowry’s proposal would shut down as many as eight driver’s license offices throughout Washington, forcing some people to drive 70 miles to reach the nearest facility. The GOP budget would keep the offices open.
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