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Senate proposal raises gas tax

Roads plan has funds for Spokane freeway

OLYMPIA – The coalition controlling the Washington Senate released a $12 billion transportation package that would raise gasoline taxes by 11.5 cents a gallon over three years and finish several major projects, including Spokane’s north-south freeway.

They said they have support from 13 of their members – half the ruling caucus – meaning they’d need 12 votes from minority Democrats to pass the package and 17 to approve the bonds necessary to pay for some projects.

“It’s a program that’s based on the needs of the state of Washington,” said Senate Transportation Committee Co-chairman Curtis King, R-Yakima.

Announcing the package at a lunchtime news conference, a group of eight senators called for quick negotiations with House Democrats and Gov. Jay Inslee to try to find a package that can get supermajority support in both chambers. They predicted the Legislature could hammer out the differences with a House proposal and pass a plan in less than a month, but others cast doubt on that estimate. 

Minority Democrats in the Senate were still studying the plan, but some said it seemed to go backward on some points negotiated over the past 14 months. Transportation Co-chairwoman Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, said it seems to rely on fund shifts and accounting tricks. “It’s not a proposal that’s been done in good faith,” she said.

The 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 is an end to sales taxes on those projects, which makes them cheaper but delivers a financial hit to the state’s general fund.

Majority Coalition Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said removing the sales tax would mean more projects can be done for the same amount of money. The general fund will more than make up the loss through the added economic development the projects will generate, he added. 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 on the West Side.

“None of these so-called reforms would get Bertha moving again,” said Sen. Marko Liias, the second-ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee, referring to the Seattle tunneling project that’s been plagued by delays.

The package would spend $750 million to finish the north-south freeway, 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. Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, 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 if it passes, but senators said it could easily wind up there with a referendum petition.

They asked 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.

Despite her criticism of the package, Eide said she’d meet to discuss the package. “You tell me where, you tell me when and I’ll be there.”

A spokesman for Inslee said the governor was encouraged the coalition has a proposal but believes it puts the sides farther apart, particularly on the sales tax shift. He’ll be working with members to help find a proposal that has the votes to pass the Senate, spokesman David Postman said.

House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, also said the Senate package seemed to be moving backward from earlier positions. She said she’d be willing to sit down at the negotiating table when supporters had enough votes to pass their package in the Senate.

“They say they have 13 votes. It takes 25,” Clibborn said. “We look forward to resuming negotiations once the Senate majority has finished negotiation among itself.”



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