OLYMPIA – A controversial package of higher taxes and fees which would raise gasoline taxes by 11.7 cents over three years passed the Senate Monday on a 27-22 vote.
By a much larger margin, senators then approved a list of some $15 billion worth of projects those taxes and fees would support, nearly $1 billion of them in the Spokane area.
A bipartisan group of supporters conceded the tax package wasn’t a perfect plan but said it would get better with continued work in the Legislature. The bill now goes to the House, which is opposed to some shifts in money from the state’s general fund to transportation projects.
Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he was voting for the first transportation package in his 23 years in the Legislature because it provides for road projects all around the state, not just large projects in a few locations like the ones gas tax increases in 2003 and 2005 funded.
Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, called the list of Connecting Washington projects “a huge win for Eastern Washington” with almost $1 billion for the Spokane area. The biggest single appropriation for Spokane would be nearly $862 million to complete the North Spokane Corridor, a project so long in the making that some residents have come to believe it is in “the same imaginary realm” as the Easter Bunny and unicorns, he said.
Opponents, who included some of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans and most liberal Democrats, criticized how the bill would raise money and where it is expected to be spent.
The proposal would give Washington the nation’s second-highest gas tax along with the highest state minimum wage, a combination that could drive out businesses, said Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic.
The list of projects is missing one of the state’s most important, said Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver: a replacement bridge to span the Columbia River between Vancouver and Portland.
A vote on the tax package was delayed from Friday, when Democrats asked whether it would need a two-thirds supermajority to move through the Senate. When the chamber convened Monday, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, who serves as president of the Senate, said it would if that rule were constitutional. But it’s not, he added.
“The Senate may adopt an unconstitutional rule, but the president will not enforce it,” he told senators, who then delayed for a second time a vote on the tax and fee package needed for a multibillion-dollar plan of large transportation projects, maintenance, ferry construction and mass transit.
On the first day of the 2015 session, the Republican-led majority changed Senate rules to require a two-thirds majority to move any new tax to its final vote. At the time, the change was seen as heading off taxes being discussed by Gov. Jay Inslee, such as a carbon fuel tax or a capital gains tax. The gas tax isn’t new, but some things in the proposal are, Owen said, including weight fees that would be used for a variety of transportation purposes, and an increase for some people renewing their vehicle licenses, which would be used for ferry construction. Described in the bill as fees, they are clearly taxes, Owen said, and the entire bill as written would need a two-thirds vote under the new rule.
But the rule is unconstitutional, he said. The state’s constitution requires simple majority votes for “ordinary legislation,” and the gas tax bill falls under that umbrella.
“The president has no choice but to follow the dictates of the Constitution,” Owen said.
Baumgartner later told Owen that Senate Republicans believe his ruling was wrong and may challenge it at some point.
“For the time being, we’re going to move forward and look at other options in the future,” he said.