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Shawn Vestal: Washington state gas tax a tale of two votes

Today we have a tale of two votes – a Republican yes and a Republican no for a state package that will bring $1 billion in new transportation investments to Spokane and raise the gas tax by almost 12 cents a gallon.

On one hand, Sen. Michael Baumgartner – whom the conventional wisdom pegs as a blunt and sometimes pugilistic battler – emerged from this year’s legislative session having worked alongside local Democrats to pull a lot of money to the dry side of the state, including the final funding for the North Spokane Corridor. Baumgartner took perhaps the toughest vote a Republican can take these days, voting yes on a tax, but he says the benefits for his district carried the day.

On the other hand, Rep. Kevin Parker – whom the conventional wisdom pegs as the nicest guy in local politics – stuck to the never-tax line and voted against the package. He took perhaps the easiest vote a Republican can take these days, voting a symbolic no as the benefits come to his district anyway. He said that the size of the tax hike plus a failure to deeply reform the state’s planning and management of projects were among the reasons he opposed the transportation package.

Parker was not the only Republican no, of course. Most local Republicans opposed the transportation package, and many of their voters probably wanted them to. But he is the one whose demeanor and collaborative veneer gave people reason to hope that he might “work across the aisle” to support the package.

The GOP no on transportation – and the sense that their vote was always going to be no, no matter what – probably meant that Spokane left even more infrastructure money on the table, according to several lawmakers. That’s not money that was saved or a tax that wasn’t raised. It was fait-accompli funding that went to put people to work elsewhere in the state.

And it’s not just Democrats who think this.

“We actually could have gotten more (transportation funding), to be honest, but we needed more votes from area legislators,” Baumgartner said.

He emphasized that he wasn’t criticizing those who opposed the tax increase, but just noting that, as the package was being negotiated, Spokane had fewer horses to trade. Lawmakers from other parts of the state – and particularly the Seattle area, which gobbles up transportation dollars – had less reason to sweeten the pot for Spokane, since there were few yeses to be had.

“There were projects that might have been left on the table,” said Rep. Marcus Riccelli, the 3rd District Democrat. “I actually think we could have done more.”

As it stands, though, it was a good year for Spokane. One overriding impression left by this year’s triple-overtime session was one of failure – of gridlock, of blaming, of lack of budget transparency. But at the end of the day, the wins here were significant. The transportation package included nearly $879 million to complete the freeway project in north Spokane, which has seemed like it might take until the 22nd century, as well as funding for important urban projects like the U-district bridge and central city trolley line. It is expected to pump $1.30 into the local economy for every $1 in taxes collected here.

Also, seemingly every university in the state will now have a medical school here; tuition cuts will help students and families; and K-12 education had its strongest budget in years.

The education boost is good, undoubtedly, but those touting it most vigorously seem to have forgotten the context. The increase was forced upon the Legislature by the Supreme Court and followed years of foot-dragging by many of the same lawmakers who are now boasting about it. And it’s fascinating that those who speak in hushed reverent tones about the “will of the voters” when it comes to taxes suddenly lose that reverence when it comes to spending money to carry out the voters’ will.

Exhibit A this year was the Legislature’s pre-game punt on Initiative 1351 – the voters said they wanted smaller class sizes, but it was not going to happen, and everyone knew it. In fact, Baumgartner said that for Democrats, voting to temporarily suspend I-1351 was not that dissimilar from his vote on the transportation package.

“It was probably as hard for Riccelli and (Sen. Andy) Billig to suspend 1351, temporarily, as it was for me to (vote to) raise that tax,” he said. “But in both instances, it was pragmatic and the best thing for the community.”

Baumgartner and Riccelli – who once ran Chris Marr’s campaign against Baumgartner – worked together on the med school legislation. “We really just formed a partnership,” Riccelli said.

Both Riccelli and Billig praised Baumgartner for his collaborative efforts and willingness to make a difficult vote. “I think it’s really in contrast to some of the other Republican legislators who were not as active and didn’t deliver for Spokane,” Billig said.

Parker agreed that a vote to raise any tax is “probably the toughest vote a Republican can take.” But he said he wasn’t following a merely political line against taxation, and that he had several reservations with the transportation package in addition to the gas tax. One was the problems the Department of Transporation has had with large projects like the Big Bertha tunnel-boring project in Seattle.

He resisted the implication that his opposition was a failure of collaboration, and that the fact that he was among the House GOP’s budget negotiators shows that.

“I have always worked across the aisle,” he said. “It doesn’t mean on every single vote that I reach across the aisle, but I wouldn’t have been in the budget room if I wasn’t able to work across the aisle.”

Baumgartner dislikes the tax increase, but thinks the results in Spokane will be dramatic and positive – a good enough “value” for him to take a vote that will not help him at all when it comes time for campaign slogans and sound bites.

“I continue to hear from a good number of people who aren’t pleased about it,” he said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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