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Gop Road Plan Heads To Fast Lane Economy Package, With No Tax Hikes, Delays Local Road Improvements

The two opposing plans lawmakers crafted this year to fix Washington’s roads were like automobiles in a political drag race.

Democratic Gov. Gary Locke’s plan was the new 4-wheel-drive vehicle: It cost more but promised to go a lot of places.

A plan by Republican lawmakers was like a used economy car: It cost less, but there was no guarantee it would get to where it was needed.

Now, just three weeks into the 1998 legislative session, the contest is all but over.

Eastern Washington motorists still may be stuck - for a while at least - in the same old traffic jams and on the same potholed roads.

The governor’s proposal has stalled. The Republican plan, meanwhile, has zipped through the House and faces a hearing this week before the Senate budget committee, where it originally was conceived.

That means taxes, particularly gas taxes, shouldn’t rise this year.

But it also means a host of highway projects - including most of a $25 million push to construct new lanes on Interstate 90 between Sprague Avenue and Argonne Road - won’t get started for at least 12 months.

Since Republicans won’t make spending commitments until next year, there’s also no telling how much money will go to cities and counties for local street projects.

And the package still faces a potential fight in the Senate and voter approval in November.

That could mean delays that serve to increase the cost, financially and politically, of catching up with the state’s $30 billion transportation project backlog, said Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton. “We think people have got to understand that there’s a real risk in this thing,” said Prince, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and one of three GOP senators fighting his own party’s plan. “We’re losing a lot of time.”

Both plans would have raised about $2.4 billion. Both would have cut the fee drivers pay to license their vehicles: Locke’s by $35; the Republicans’ by $40, or more for new-car owners.

Only one raised taxes.

Locke had called for boosting the gas tax by 11 cents a gallon over five years to help raise money for highways, bridges and ferries. He would have redistributed millions of those dollars to cities and counties to build and repair local streets.

Republicans quashed that plan, arguing there was no need to raise taxes.

Instead, Republicans proposed getting the money by shuffling budgets, dipping into an $865 million budget surplus, and bonding for 25 years.

“Why not take the surplus, fix the roads and keep the economy healthy?” House Majority Leader Barb Lis, R-Zillah, asked.

But to do it, the GOP must go around the spending cap, Initiative 601, which leaders wouldn’t do without asking voters, so the plan includes a referendum clause. That eliminates any chance for a governor’s veto, but also ensures no money comes until at least early 1999.

Only then will Republicans determine precisely how to spend it.

“The governor asked us to prepare a list of priority projects,” said Randy Hain, director of program management for the Department of Transportation. “(The Republicans) haven’t. That proposal doesn’t have an expenditure plan.”

Transportation Committee staffers are preparing a highway project list, but it remains under wraps. Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane, said committee members like Prince will have to decide whether to provide money for local projects.

“There’s nothing in that bill that says money can’t go for cities and counties,” West said.

But the lack of commitment is one reason Prince has not yet agreed to champion the bill. He also fears relying on a surplus leaves the state vulnerable to drops in consumer confidence or fallout from Asia’s financial crisis.

Republicans plan to use roughly $300 million of the surplus, but “there’s a chance $200 million could be gone today” if revenue projections are adjusted downward during the next forecast on Feb. 19, Prince said.

Democrats, including House Minority Leader Marlin Appelwick, D-Seattle, characterize the plan as a “five-year spending spree with a 25-year mortgage.”

But West, the Senate’s top budget man, maintains there’s money available to cover the plan even if the economy sours. The Republicans would just lower the amount of other planned tax cuts, he said.

And while he said he wants Prince’s support (Republicans hold only a three-seat margin in the Senate), West smiled and said he might not need it.

He was suggesting that some Democrats might support the package.

“The Senate is much more independent than the House,” he said.

, DataTimes