OLYMPIA – Washington’s roads, bridges and ferries need billions of dollars in maintenance that the state doesn’t have, Gov. Chris Gregoire said. To help fix that, she wants the Legislature to pass some new transportation fees, including one on oil.
In her state of the state address, Gregoire called for a fee of $1.50 per barrel on oil produced in Washington as the major piece of a plan to raise $3.6 billion for transportation projects over the next 10 years.
While some Democrats called the new proposal “a good beginning,” Republicans were skeptical the oil fee was a viable solution to a growing problem with road maintenance.
Senate Republican budget leader Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield said there seems to be no guarantee that the money raised by the fee would always be dedicated to transportation projects. Unless it fell under the same constitutional provision as the gasoline tax, it could be “swept” into the General Fund for other uses.
Senate Republicans are likely to argue that this is actually a tax on oil, not a fee. While the distinction wouldn’t make a difference at the pump, it could determine whether the plan can pass the Legislature.
Even though it would create jobs through new transportation projects, the fee would also find its way to the pump and make Washington a more expensive place to do business, House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt of Chehalis said.
A fee can be levied with a simple majority, which Democrats hold in both houses; a tax must receive a two-thirds majority in both houses, which Democrats don’t have in either. A ruling by Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, who presides over the Senate, that the proposal is a tax would make the proposal all but impossible to pass.
Republicans in the Legislature signaled they might prefer a gas tax increase for transportation projects – which could be approved by voters with a simple majority – under certain circumstances. They have in the past, Senate Majority Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla said. But these are different times, and there is no such proposal to study right now.
“We just saw (the governor’s proposal) last night,” Hewitt added.
The call for a fee on oil was a new element in Gregoire’s speech.
She also reiterated requests for the Legislature to tackle the state’s budget problems quickly, send a half-cent sales tax to the voters to save some programs, close a gap in the General Fund, reform education and government, and pass a bill allowing same-sex marriage.
Use a strategy known in car racing known as “winning in the turns,” she said, speeding up when others are slowing down. The state should do more, not less, to “out-pace, out-educate and out-perform” other states and foreign countries, she said.
Legislators of both parties applauded when Gregoire made general exhortations, like telling them the state’s future was in their hands and they should show state residents they can all work together.
Applause sometimes came only from Democrats, however, when she mentioned the temporary half-cent sales tax or same-sex marriage.