Politics & Government

Lawmakers reach deal on gas tax increase, transportation funding

State lawmakers have reached a deal to raise the gas tax to pay for highway improvements, with leaders from both parties saying they’re optimistic lawmakers will approve a package by Tuesday.

Gov. Jay Inslee said Sunday that he would accept a deal even if it restricts his ability to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from gasoline and diesel fuel — wiping out the biggest point of contention on the highway and mass-transit package.

“It puts the governor in a bad spot,” said Inslee’s spokesman, David Postman, “but he has made it clear that he is not the block to a transportation package.”

Negotiators said the package would raise the state’s gas tax by 11.9 cents a gallon and raise fees to fund more than $15 billion in spending. Proposals supported by both parties previously included funding for extending state Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma and widening Interstate 5 along Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The negotiated package would also authorize Sound Transit to ask voters for another $15 billion in taxes to extend light rail in the Puget Sound region, which could pay for extending light rail from from Seattle to Tacoma.

Senate Republicans this year had resisted providing the full amount to Sound Transit. They also conditioned their support for the overall package on a provision restricting Inslee from enacting a low-carbon fuel standard.

Such a standard would make oil refineries and distributors reduce the carbon footprint of Washington’s fuel supply through measures such as greater use of biofuels. The GOP says it would further raise the price of gas.

Sen. Joe Fain, who has been one of the Republican negotiators on the package, said restricting the fuel standard amounts to a “consumer protection” measure.

“It protects consumers against increases in gas prices,” said Fain, R-Auburn.

Nearly half of Washington’s greenhouse-gas emissions come from transportation.

“We’re very disappointed to see that critical policies which can be helping communities (have) healthy air as well as giving consumers more choices are being sacrificed to preserve a monopoly for Big Oil,” said Ross Macfarlane of environmental group Climate Solutions.

Republicans had previously proposed a provision that would cancel much of the nonhighway spending in the 16-year package if a governor enacted a fuel standard.

Fain said that in the deal reached between Republicans and Democrats, the fuel standard restriction would apply through 2023, or half of the life of the transportation package.

Rep. Judy Clibborn, the chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said it’s imperative that the Legislature approve a roads package this year to relieve congestion and ensure that goods can move on Washington’s highways.

“It takes a little time to build these things, so if you don’t get started, it starts to affect your economy,” said Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.

Fain said improving the state’s highways is also about improving people’s quality of life.

“People spending time in traffic with a one-and-a-half hour commute is time that should be spent with family,” Fain said.

Inslee said he wants the tax package sent to his desk by Tuesday. Fain said he is optimistic the Legislature will approve the package by then.

Lawmakers began their third overtime session at noon Sunday as they tried to wrap up work on a state operating budget. A new two-year budget must be passed and signed by the governor before the end of the day Tuesday to avoid a partial government shutdown Wednesday.

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