Politics & Government

GOP transportation package has limited support so far

The Senate’s Republican-dominated majority showed its cards Thursday, saying half of the 26-member group supports a proposal to raise the gas tax by 11 1/2 cents while also making changes in how transportation money is spent.

Republican Senate Transportation Co-chairman Curtis King said he has at least 13 votes for a plan he unveiled Thursday. But that leaves it 12 shy of a Senate majority, and Democrats showed no sign of helping out.

Senate Democrats who had been waiting for a plan and a vote count said they are willing to negotiate, but their first reaction Thursday was to criticize the proposal as moving the two parties farther apart.

King said his backers moved toward Democrats by devoting roughly $300 million more to mass transit and pedestrian and bicycle routes than in his last proposal. He calls for a total of $667 million for such non-highway spending, about two-thirds of what some Democrats want. Local governments would also get expanded authority to raise more funds.

“We haven’t just sat there and said no,” said King of Yakima. “We’ve moved. We’ve tried. But we must have these reforms. It’s the only way that we can sell this package to the public.”

Even while moving toward Democrats on transit, Republicans moved further away with a call to funnel sales tax on all highway projects back into transportation. It’s more sweeping than previous proposals and would raise $840 million that would go to highway projects and State Patrol salaries.

That’s part of a package of taxes, fees and changes that would raise $12.4 billion in 12 years.

The sales tax proceeds from road construction would no longer flow to the state’s main fund that pays for schools, social services and other programs. Democrats oppose diverting money from those programs.

“I really believe that we are miles apart,” said Senate Transportation Co-chairwoman Tracey Eide, D-Des Moines.

Republicans say recapturing sales tax is one of a series of reforms that will restore public faith in transportation spending after missteps such as the cracked state Route 520 pontoons and the halted tunnel-boring machine.

The 13 votes of support are contingent on such changes. “I’m only a yes if we have reform,” said Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, who is new to publicly declaring her support. She acknowledged a gas-tax increase could be a tough vote to explain in her rural district in Pierce and Thurston counties but said she’s heard from constituents who see the economic-development reasons for road projects.

The reforms also include changing how stormwater cleanup is funded.

“Their so-called reforms aren’t going to get Bertha moving again,” said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo.

The Senate majority is made up of 24 Republicans and two breakaway Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom. Eight members of the group threw their support behind the latest plan by joining Thursday’s press conference: King, Tom, Becker, plus Republicans Michael Baumgartner of Spokane, Joe Fain of Auburn, Andy Hill of Redmond, Steve Litzow of Mercer Island and Linda Evans Parlette of Wenatchee.

They demanded that Gov. Jay Inslee and other Democrats resume negotiations with them.

Talks broke off late last year, weeks before the start of the current 60-day legislative session. The session is now more than halfway over, with time running out to reach consensus on any transportation plan.

Tom says he wants a plan that can pass this session. He called for a meeting Wednesday and Senate Democrats said they’ll show.

House leaders showed no willingness to negotiate, saying the Senate must create a plan it can pass first. The Democrat-controlled House passed a plan last year, though the GOP questioned some of its assumptions.

Inslee’s spokesman said in a statement that the proposal moves the sides farther apart, especially on the sales tax issue, but that Inslee was “encouraged” by the proposal and the GOP’s willingness to negotiate and would work with the Senate to reach a deal.

The GOP package includes about $1.7 billion for extensions of state routes 167 and 509 and $350 million for improvements to Interstate 5 around Joint Base Lewis-McChord.