Yakima Herald Editorial Board, February 15, 2015, Yakima Herald
The state constitution says adequate funding of K-12 education is the paramount duty of Washington state government. In its current session, the Legislature rightfully is focusing on meeting the dictates of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, which held that the state wasn’t performing its duty adequately. Politically though not constitutionally, one of the next-paramount duties is transportation funding, an issue that has festered amid partisan differences for the past two years. This session will be a critical one in addressing the state’s need to move people and goods.
The Republican-controlled Senate, whose Transportation Committee is chaired by Curtis King of Yakima, offered a bipartisan proposal Thursday for a $15 billion statewide package. On the all-important taxation issue, the proposal would raise the state’s gasoline tax incrementally by 11.7 cents over the next three years; it now stands at 37.5 cents per gallon on top of the federal government’s 18.4 cents per gallon. The gas tax is a different approach from one advocated by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who has proposed a carbon tax.
King worries a carbon tax could be used for purposes other than transportation, whereas the state constitution requires that the gas tax go to road and highway projects. The down side is that the gas tax is losing its effectiveness in raising revenue as vehicles become more fuel-efficient and motorists travel less. The up side is with gas prices in a slump right now, a phased-in tax will have a softer impact on consumers.
The Senate approach also proposes sensible reforms such as keeping the state’s sales tax revenue on transportation projects for transportation and not shifting the money to other areas of state government. The proposal also seeks to adjust prevailing wage standards to reduce how much the state is required to pay contractors for labor, a reform long sought by King. Democrats have resisted these ideas, but they appear willing to compromise if an agreement allows job-creating projects to move forward. Urban Democrats also want measures to enable transit projects in central Puget Sound.
Legislators always want to be seen as working for their districts, which leads to the danger of a Christmas tree of goodies for everyone across the state. A smarter approach is to set priorities that would benefit the state’s economy as a whole, and we continue to argue that projects improving freight mobility contribute most to state job growth and offer the best return on investment. Among those that are in the Senate proposal are widening Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass and easing access to the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. Improvements that move goods also will help move people, a priority for an increasingly congested Pugetopolis.
A priority that runs a close second is maintenance of our current road system; without new revenue, an estimated 60 percent of the state’s roads will be considered “poor or very poor” in the next decade. Statewide public opinion polls find strong voter recognition of the maintenance issue.
Overhanging any tax increase is the prospect that it may be challenged at the ballot box; a phased-in gas tax prevailed at the polls in 2005, the last time it was raised. The state’s voters largely understand the need, and a smart, targeted proposal that institutes reforms and addresses mobility needs would pass voter muster if it came to that — and benefit the state in the long term.
Thursday’s proposal merely starts the process rolling. It is slated for hearings next week, and then it must be rectified with any proposal passed by the Democratic-controlled House. As a starting point, the Senate proposal is a sensible one that should help get the debate moving on transportation.