Don’t look to Olympia for an immediate solution to Spokane’s street maintenance needs.
Majority Republicans announced Monday they’ll block any attempt to raise the fuel tax during the next legislative session.
House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee, and Senate Majority Leader Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, said Republicans also oppose spending part of the state’s $800 million surplus on transportation if it means lifting the state’s spending limit imposed by Initiative 601.
The comments came after a Republican strategy retreat at Ocean Shores.
Party leaders did say they’re studying whether a larger share of the state’s motor vehicle excise tax could go into roadwork without exceeding the spending limit. Half of that tax goes to transportation, with the other half split between local governments and the state’s general treasury.
During a visit to Spokane last week, Gov. Gary Locke made it clear he wouldn’t transfer that money if it means cutting spending for education. Locke called a gas-tax increase vital to the economy, and said he was urging legislative leaders to pass one.
“We cannot politicize this. We cannot delay,” he told Spokane political and business leaders. “The longer we delay, the more we hurt the well-being of the state.”
While ruling out a fuel tax increase and exceeding the spending limit, Republican leaders mentioned other possibilities to raise more road money. They include exempting highway projects from the state sales tax, squeezing more money from the state Department of Transportation, leasing right-of-way for cellular telephone towers and cracking down on fuel tax evasion.
“We still want a big, meaningful package,” House Transportation Chairwoman Karen Schmidt said.
Locke said last week that he feared a gas tax hike would be opposed by Republican leaders in an election year.
“The increases in the gas tax have never cost anyone an election,” he said.
In May, the Spokane City Council borrowed $2.66 million to fix five of the worst city streets. The council was counting on a local gas tax proposal to repay the loan and make other street improvements, but voters countywide rejected that tax last week. That left the city hinging its hopes on the Legislature.
Without more money, street crews can’t keep up with maintenance, said City Manager Bill Pupo.
“Apparently, the Legislature doesn’t see the urgency and emergency in our transportation needs,” Pupo said. He added that Spokane officials would need to unite with other cities to lobby legislators for more road money.
Last session, about lawmakers supported a 7-cent increase in the state’s 23-cent-a-gallon tax. McDonald blocked the measure. Instead, the Legislature ordered an audit to make sure the Department of Transportation is as efficient as possible.
“We’ve got to make government more accountable and we can’t do that if we simply turn to higher taxes and more spending,” Ballard said.
Locke and Transportation Secretary Sid Morrison said last week that they welcome the audit, but doubt it will find substantial waste. Such audits often suggest privatization as a way to save money. Morrison noted that private firms handle more than 60 percent of the state’s roadwork.
Sen. Eugene Prince, a Whitman County Republican, said he doesn’t expect solutions during the upcoming session. The chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Prince was highly critical of Republican leaders last year, calling opposition to the tax increase “short-sighted.”
“This thing’s getting so partisan, I can’t see how we can get anywhere,” Prince said Monday.