OLYMPIA – Don’t get your hopes up for new money to finish the north-south freeway, a group of business, civic and political leaders from Spokane was told Wednesday.
The chances the Legislature will pass a package of big highway and bridge projects funded by a gasoline tax are almost nonexistent.
Some legislators blamed politics or the lack of support among Republican legislators from the Spokane area. Others blamed problems at the state Transportation Department. Some said a package can’t make it out of the Legislature during the current abbreviated session. Others said any package that did would surely wind up on the ballot, where voters would reject it.
Together, they painted a bleak outlook for one of the top items – and by far the most expensive – on the Greater Spokane Incorporated 2014 agenda as more than 80 local leaders arrived in Olympia for their annual three-day lobbying session.
“We can’t come to an agreement,” House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, told the group. “I don’t know when we’re going to get it out.”
The Democratic-controlled House passed a $10 billion proposal last year that included almost $480 million for the North Spokane Corridor. But the Senate, which is controlled by a predominantly Republican coalition, has yet to settle on a package of its own. Until it comes up with a plan a majority of senators say they will support, Clibborn said anything she did would be negotiating against herself.
“They don’t have to pass it. They have to say they have the votes,” Clibborn said.
Rep. Ed Orcutt of Kalama, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, said any proposal with a tax increase will go to the ballot, whether that’s part of the legislation or it’s forced there through a referendum. “I don’t think anything will stand up in front of the voters.”
But when legislators asked how many members of the group would support a gasoline tax for transportation projects, most in the room raised their hand. Success at the ballot box will depend on how it’s presented, said Rich Hadley, chief executive officer of GSI. The group’s polling shows when people are simply asked if they’d support a higher gas tax, most say no; when asked if they’d support a higher tax and told what it will pay for, about half say yes.
“We like ideology, but what we like more is action,” Roger Flint, the city of Spokane’s former public works director, told Clibborn and Orcutt.
The Legislature should concentrate on reforms to the way the state builds big projects and to the Transportation Department that oversees them, Orcutt said. But it was clear that even Republicans disagree on the scope of those reforms.
For example, road and bridge construction projects in the state pay sales tax, which goes into the general fund for education and a wide range of the other programs. Some House Republicans want the sales tax placed in the separate fund that pays for transportation projects. Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, said there should be no sales tax on road projects, which would lower the cost of the project and, if the state is selling bonds to pay for it, the cost of financing.
Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, called taking tax money from transportation projects out of the general fund a “slippery slope” but said he would support such a reform if it meant getting the full amount to finish the north-south freeway, which he added has been on the drawing boards longer than the 35 years he’s been alive.
“I’d stick my neck out there if it’s done right,” Riccelli said.
Last year’s House transportation package had less than the amount GSI is seeking, and some Spokane-area Republican senators said they wanted the full $750 million in exchange for supporting a gas tax increase. Riccelli said $480 million was “all two Democratic votes could do” in the House, where Spokane-area Republicans all voted against the package.