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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Gas-tax debate pits safer roads against pain at pumps

Richard Roesler Staff writer

OLYMPIA – Three years ago, politicians, businesses and unions launched a massive push to get Washington voters to agree to a 9-cent gas tax increase.

They amassed a $4.6 million war chest. They bought radio and TV airtime across the state. They decried unsafe, congested roads, and urged people to vote yes for the new tax.

What happened? People voted no, in droves. Just 38 percent said yes.

Now, many of the same players are trying again. With little time, much higher gas prices and far less campaign cash, they aim to convince voters to let stand a 9.5-cent gas tax increase approved by lawmakers this spring.

“It’s going to be a very tough sell,” said Dale Stedman, with the Spokane Area Good Roads Association. In Oklahoma, where voters faced a similar measure a few weeks ago, more than 80 percent voted no.

In Washington, virtually every poll so far has shown voters at least narrowly in favor of the initiative, which would veto the 9.5-cents-a-gallon increase.

“This is not a slam dunk. I don’t think anybody has ever said it would be,” said Duke Schaub, a lobbyist with Associated General Contractors of Washington, which opposes the initiative. “But if we can get out our message, I think we really have a fighting chance.”

That message: that the money would help reduce congestion and fix critical safety problems on highway structures and bridges throughout the state. And that vetoing billions of dollars in new gas taxes – as Initiative 912 would do – means greater danger and, eventually, even greater costs.

The “No on 912” forces are hoping to avoid a repeat of Referendum 51, the $8 billion measure that voters torpedoed three years ago.

Businesses, elected officials and unions pushed hard for R-51, arguing that the state’s economy was choking on traffic. And they put their money where their mouths were. Boeing contributed $250,000. Microsoft gave $200,000. Bill Gates himself gave $100,000, as did the Seattle Mariners.

Now, just five weeks before Election Day, the No on 912 group is trying to raise money, get organized and get its message out.

“We’ve just gotten up and running,” said spokesman Mark Funk.

They’ve raised just $333,000 so far, according to the latest campaign-finance reports. This time contribution levels are noticeably smaller: Boeing’s given $15,000. Microsoft’s given $10,000. The Mariners gave $5,000. The biggest backers so far this year are real estate agents, construction companies and unions.

Despite the much-smaller bankroll, No on 912 organizers say they’re determined to succeed where R-51 failed.

For one thing, they say, environmental groups are with them this time. In 2002, many environmental groups withdrew support, arguing that the referendum didn’t include enough money for mass-transit projects. This time, “the environmental community is 100 percent unified” in the push to save the 9.5-cent gas tax increase, according to environmental lobbyist Clifford Traisman. He spoke in a phone interview, while stuck in traffic on Interstate 5 and late for his son’s soccer game.

Secondly, in the wake of R-51’s failure, the state Department of Transportation has tried hard to show that it’s spending taxpayer money wisely. Lawmakers this spring toughened audit requirements at the agency, with new “performance audits” to look at not just where the money’s going, but how fast and how well work is getting done.

Third, the campaign doesn’t want politicians to lead the charge this time. In 2002, then-Gov. Gary Locke and former Sen. Slade Gorton were the campaign’s figureheads, beating the drum for the new gas tax and wringing big-money contributions from corporations. This time, Funk confirmed, polling by the No on 912 group suggested “that people are somewhat skeptical of politicians” leading the charge for a tax hike.

Lastly, the project list is much better defined this year, Funk and other gas-tax proponents say. In 2002, many voters complained that they didn’t know how the money would be spent. Today, the state Department of Transportation publishes a long list of projects, county by county, detailing where the money would go and when the work would be done. (See www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/Funding/2005/.)

“We are going to try to communicate with the voters that these projects are defined, will get done, and are in virtually every neighborhood of the state,” said Schaub. “There is an awful lot on the table here.”

One fact that will be tough to counter, however, is that much of the new transportation tax increase – including vehicle weight fees, motor home charges and other fees untouched by I-912 – would go to Puget Sound. An August analysis by the state Transportation Department’s strategic planning and programming department showed that Puget Sound – King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties – would get $4.9 billion. The remaining 36 counties would share less than $2.4 billion.

In fact, the study found that for every dollar of new tax collected in the seven Eastern Washington counties, including Spokane, those areas would get back about 41 cents. Pend Oreille County would get back just 18 cents of work for each dollar of tax collected there; Stevens County would get 14 cents.

Foes of I-912 hasten to point out that for rural Eastern Washington counties, that’s a reversal of how things have long been. For the past decade, for example, Pend Oreille County has gotten back $2.46 in road construction for every dollar in transportation tax paid there. Ferry County’s done even better, nearly quadrupling its tax dollars.

Also, it does Eastern Washington no good, many transportation advocates say, if Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct collapses and S-R 520 floating bridge sinks in the next big earthquake. Central Puget Sound is the engine of the state’s economy, churning out airplanes, developing software and shipping Eastern Washington crops and products overseas from ports in Seattle and Tacoma.

“Are they (Eastern Washington) going to be better off with this package than without it? Absolutely,” said Schaub. And the DOT figures don’t include state grant programs for mass transit and freight systems, he said, which would likely mean more money for Eastern Washington.

Still, Stedman predicts that the No on 912 campaign will have to pick its battles, and that the battlefield is likely to be Puget Sound.

“If you can’t get a ‘no’ vote in the Seattle area, you can’t get it anywhere, because that’s were most of the (new tax) benefits are,” he said. Seattle’s many voters will see many of the most-expensive work, he said, such as replacing the viaduct and 520 bridge, widening nearby I-405 and improving the ferry system.

“A lot of those don’t mean much in Asotin County,” he said.

Most Eastern Washington voters, he thinks, will approve the initiative to veto the new tax.

“They have shown, over and over again, that they vote their pocketbook,” Stedman said, “without much regard to what it does to the region.”

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