Hopes Grow More Dim for Transpo Deal; Senate GOP Negotiator Floats Idea of December Special Session

By Brad Shannon, February 5, 2014, The Olympian

Hopes for a $10 billion to $12 billion package of transportation improvements appear to be waning at the Legislature. Republican Sen. Curtis King of Yakima says he has a new version or proposal to unveil, possibly Friday of this week.


But it’s far from clear that King, who is chief transportation negotiator for the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, will even push for a Senate vote on it in the 60-day regular session that is almost half over.  Democrats have been waiting for a vote before resuming bargaining.


“We haven’t met since the 18th of December,” King said this week of negotiators. “I look at this as trying to give us something new to start on so we’re a little further along the road. But I’ve been saying for two weeks I’ll have it out this Thursday.’’


In fact, King says he told interest groups recently that it may be necessary to wait until after the November elections and ask Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee to call a special session in December to vote on the deal – if one is crafted.


But Inslee’s office is not interested in that, and spokeswoman Jaime Smith said Wednesday that the next move for transportation is still a Senate vote on some kind of package. That’s been the Democrats’ position all year on any package – which could range from $10 billion to $12 billion and raise gas taxes by a dime or more per gallon, as well as raise other vehicle and transportation fees.


House Transportation Committee chair Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said Wednesday the House voted on a package last year so she also is waiting for a Senate vote – or at least a vote count. So far she has neither – although she said she has agreed to 90 percent of the last plan she had seen from King.


“He doesn’t have to have a vote. All he has to do is a vote count,” Clibborn said.


“From my perspective since they are the majority caucus, I’d like to see them give 14 votes,’’ Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson of Maury Island said earlier in the week. Nelson said there were 20 Senate Democrats willing to vote for Clibborn’s plan that passed the House last year.


A coalition of labor, business and environmental groups has been pushing for a tax package worth $10 billion or more since late 2012 – even before Inslee got on board last year with the idea of passing a tax increase in 2013. Without a package some transit operations such as King County Metro are reported to be running out of funds and will be cutting back service.


In Pierce County, a few lawmakers of both parties have joined the chorus in wanting to see a package – in part because they want to see the rest of the freight corridor along State Route 167 completed to the Port of Tacoma. U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, also is pushing from the federal level.


But Clibborn did not sound confident of getting an agreement. In fact, she is questioning whether it is King or others in the coalition making decisions on whether to go ahead – or not.


“He doesn’t want to say that they are not going to move anything, but they are not (moving anything). Every week he’s moved it another week (for announcing a new proposal) and we’re sort of at the end,” Clibborn said. “I’m not sure they want to have something.”


A huge sticking point has been reforms that the GOP has demanded in the House and Senate. Whatever reforms Republicans demand, they’ll still need Democratic votes to pass a tax plan – even if King is able to get a majority of his 26-member caucus to go along.


One such “reform” is the GOP’s insistence on taking sales tax collections on highway projects and diverting the cash out of the general fund in order to reinvest it in more projects. But that would take away money that now goes for state operations, including K-12 schools that the Supreme Court already says are underfunded.


House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D- Covington, said recently that such a tax-shift is not a reform, but instead a policy decision that would hurt schools.


“I don’t know how in any stretch of the imagination that can be called a reform,” Sullivan said, explaining that it would interfere with the state’s ability to deliver more funding for schools in response to the Supreme Court’s latest order. “If it’s the reform that has to happen (for a deal), I don’t think it’s a good idea.”


The idea of a December special session came up recently when King was speaking to a group of transportation stakeholders. After hearing about it second hand, Sullivan and Nelson mentioned it to reporters on Monday during a press briefing.


King said in an interview that he had told stakeholders of the option when asked about the prospects of getting agreement soon. “So my comment was, ‘I don’t believe we’re going to get it done this session. I don’t believe there is a will to do it, …” King recalled. “We have a lot of very important things left to agree on. We haven’t even talked about what the project list is going to look like. Not that I think that’s going to be a big hurdle.’’


King said he also believes lawmakers face too many huge challenges in 2015 if they wait that long – when major decisions also need to be made about school funding.


“To think we could throw a transportation package on top of that is insane,” King said. “So that means you won’t be able to do it until 2016. So I’m asking people to think, is there any way we can come to agreement and have the governor call a special session?”


King did not dispute that the next move was up to the Senate. Stay tuned.

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