Politics & Government

Tribes' fuel-tax deal moves to Senate

The House resoundingly approved a bill creating gasoline-tax compacts between the governor and tribes Friday, sending the amended measure back to the Senate for a final vote.

Still to work out is a difference of opinion with the Senate on how to deal with fuel distributors' handling of fuel taxes. Senators have looked at a way to end a 30-day "float" on tax collections from distributors that could bring millions more into the state transportation funds, but the House has rejected that approach.

The House vote didn't come without a fight, as Rep. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale led a minority of Republicans in attacking Senate Bill 5272. He called it a giveaway of $255 million over 16 years to tribes and said it would rob the state's transportation system.

Ericksen offered several amendments to require that compacts crafted by the governor return to the Legislature for approval. But the House Transportation chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said compacts are government-to-government agreements best executed by a governor.

Majority Democrats and 22 Republicans voted 83-11 in favor of the bill.

Clibborn and Republican Rep. Mike Armstrong of Wenatchee said the bill is a response to a federal court ruling that barred the state from collecting gas taxes on fuel sales from American Indian reservation fuel pumps.

The bill sets up a situation in which the state still can receive 25 cents on every $1 of gasoline tax collected by tribal fuel stations, which is more than what a federal ruling by U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly allowed, Clibborn and Armstrong said. And the bill requires tribes to spend the money on transportation-related activities, which could include police.

Armstrong disputed Ericksen's claim that the state would lose $255 million. He said the judge's ruling means the state collects nothing under current law; also, only two tribes have compacts, so the actual collections are far less than that.

The tax compacts are expected to create a new shift of about $1.6 million in state money to tribes beginning in fiscal year 2007, according to a Department of Licensing analysis of the legislation.

Ericksen said his figures were based on research by nonpartisan legislative staff and represented a 16-year loss to state funds if all tribes get compacts and keep taxes collected from sales at existing gasoline pumps.

The Squaxin Island tribe west of Olympia is one of two tribes that negotiated compacts with Gov. Chris Gregoire last year to share tax collections from reservation sales. The Squaxin agreement calls for the tribe to keep 75 cents and the state 25 cents on each dollar, and the tribe has voluntarily committed most of its early collections to a $1.5 million project on a non-reservation road that links the tribe-owned lands with state Route 101.

Gregoire's chief of staff, Tom Fitzsimmons, has said the Squaxin Island and Swinomish tribes received one-time payments of $800,000 for past taxes because they filed their lawsuits, which now are on appeal by the state. They are expected to receive about $504,000 a year from the agreements.

Last month, Ericksen and the GOP attacked a similar House version of the gasoline-tax bill, offering amendments to bar Gregoire from receiving campaign contributions from groups she negotiates contracts or compacts with. The GOP tried to link the generous terms of recent tribal gambling compacts to tribal donations to Democratic candidates or causes, including judicial campaigns. How they voted

Seven of South Sound's eight representatives voted in favor of Senate Bill 5272 on Friday, including Democratic Reps. Sam Hunt, Brendan Williams and Kathy Haigh, and Republicans Gary Alexander, Richard DeBolt, Tom Campbell and Jim McCune. Democrat William Eickmeyer was absent. Similar strife

Friday's battle over gas taxes echoed an ongoing complaint from House Republicans over state-tribal relations, most of them dealing with gambling.

A week ago, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a compact with 27 tribes increasing their use of video-style slot machines. The agreement, which Gregoire long had been expected to sign, was approved with no announcements or fanfare by the governor's office.

Republican Rep. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale has contended that the tribal agreements should be subjected to legislative approval.