Explaining the legislative holdup in Olympia

What is Gov. Jay Inslee willing to do to get a win in Olympia? columnist Jonathan Martin asks.

By Jonathan Martin, February 6, 2015, Seattle Times

Gov. Jay Inslee needs a win. After two years in Olympia, legislative victories on his proposals are sparse, and it’s not looking good this year either.


Instead, Inslee has been primarily a speechmaker-in-chief, and mostly about carbon reduction. In Associated Press style, he’d be Gov. Inslee, D-Climate Change, not D-Wash.


He has moved the political needle on the important issue of climate change. Just this week, his foes in the state Senate Republican caucus floated a small but plausible plan to cut emissions.


But the question is whether Inslee has the interest, or legislative skill, to translate his passion into meaningful new law. His own carbon-reduction plan — a cap-and-trade market — might not even clear the Democratically controlled House. It is dead on arrival in the Senate.


Democrats privately mutter about an executive who can’t cut deals. Inslee is Obama without Obamacare.


Rounding the pole of his four-year term, Inslee has the opportunity to do something big on an issue he’s talked about from day one in office: a transportation investment package.


Transportation negotiations have gone on now for two years, through various negotiators, with little more than sheafs of paper to show for it. Olympia’s power centers — big labor, big business, ports, transit advocates and others — are hungry for a deal. So are the likes of you and me, Seattle-area citizens who waste an average of 84 hours a year stuck in some of the worst traffic jams in America.


As of this week, negotiators in the Senate have general agreement on an 11.5-cent-per-gallon gas-tax increase that would fund a multibillion-dollar investment.


I don’t like higher gas prices any more than anyone else, but the payoff is worth it — and the time is now, with rock-bottom gas prices. Highway 520 could be finished and bottlenecks on Interstate 5 and Interstate 405 could be cleared. Authorization for a Sound Transit 3 package — potentially extending lines to Everett, Redmond and Federal Way — is also in the agreement.


But the package remains as stuck as a rush-hour commuter. Democrats want transit funding that Republicans distrust. Republicans have warmed up to a gas tax, but want construction-project reforms, gouging Democrats’ biggest allies.


“I wish both sides would compromise,” sighed Sen. Steve Hobbs, a moderate Democrat from Lake Stevens. He looked up at a painting in his office, of paratroopers storming an airfield in Grenada, guns blazing. The title: “When Negotiations Fail.” If only it were that easy.


The biggest sticking point currently may be Inslee. This week, Inslee inched forward toward an executive order that would require a lower amount of carbon in gasoline, but would raise the price at the gas pump. Unlike his cap-and-trade proposal, Inslee could impose that policy, called a “low-carbon fuel standard,” without a vote in the Legislature.


That policy is a non-starter for Republicans, who want to strip Inslee of that executive power.


Republican Sen. Joe Fain of Covington, who is negotiating with Hobbs, noted that the cost of the fuel standard — estimated by the governor’s administration at 10 cents a gallon over the next decade— doesn’t buy roads or bridges. But it would stack on top of the proposed gas-tax increase needed to pay for the transportation package.


“Without assurances that a low-carbon fuel standard won’t be unilaterally imposed, it’s difficult to justify putting an additional tax on gasoline,” said Fain. He’s one of the GOP moderates who has supported a gas-tax increase.


Inslee’s spokesman, David Postman, said the plans to reduce carbon and to fund a transportation package should be separate. He also noted that reasons for GOP opposition has shifted, from the Columbia River bridge plan that included light rail, to the stalled Highway 99 tunnel and now to the governor’s carbon-reduction approach. “I’m a little skeptical, I’d say,” about Republican’s real willingness to approve a gas-tax increase, said Postman.


There’s reason to be skeptical. But that doesn’t change the political reality for Inslee. He needs to prove he can cut a big deal that, two years into his term, has been elusive.


Inslee himself has offered a path to compromise, suggesting in a recent press briefing that other carbon-reduction reforms — such as higher-efficiency building codes — would work. I also think he could make his case for a carbon tax through a ballot initiative. Recent polling shows that voters want to address climate change, almost as much as they want relief from congestion.


Heading into his third year in office, Inslee needs a win. Voters in 2016 will want to know: Is Inslee an ideologue or a pragmatic executive?


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