State Democrats May Have to Listen to GOP Transportation Ideas

By Jordan Schrader, March 9, 2013, The News Tribune

Hoping to persuade Republicans to support a major gas tax increase, Democrats may have to take seriously some GOP proposals about how state money is spent on road projects.

Indeed, Democrats say they are interested in some of what Republicans announced Thursday as their top priorities for cutting transportation costs.

“What I would like to see is … You take the reforms, then you come and help us with the funding. I think it’s a partnership,” said House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, the Mercer Island Democrat who has proposed a package including a 10-cent gas tax increase to fund projects such as extending state Route 167. “If they want to start with efficiencies, that’s fine.”

Minority House Republicans have been cool to House Democrats’ nearly $10 billion tax package, and they are making no public promises to warm up if they get what they want.

The Republicans’ point man on transportation, Kalama Rep. Ed Orcutt, said the Legislature needs to address high costs and recent Department of Transportation errors — and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee needs to sign those changes into law — before Republicans consider asking taxpayers for more money.

“Let’s find out what our current dollars can do, figure out what is truly needed when we fix the cost issue, and then we can figure out what we can do as far as any additional revenue,” Orcutt said.

Republicans are on the wrong side of a 55-43 split in the House, and a majority there can vote to raise taxes after the state Supreme Court struck down voter-imposed requirements for two-thirds supermajorities. But Republicans are ascendant in the Senate, where Majority Leader Rodney Tom, a Medina Democrat who caucuses with the GOP, has voiced support for a higher gas tax but said he would not allow tax increases without two-thirds support.

Orcutt cited six changes seen as crucial, including four specific to transportation:

  • An exemption for state transportation projects from paying sales tax. House Bill 1985 would apply only to future projects.
  • Replacing 30-year bonds with 15-year bonds so bonded gas tax money isn’t tied up paying off projects long after they are finished. House Bill 1989 would make that change to borrowing.
  • Limiting DOT’s liability in lawsuits. House Bill 1984 seeks to limit payouts to the level of the department’s fault. DOT paid out $33 million in fiscal 2011.
  • Require DOT to report on engineering errors costing more than $500,000 and explain why employees were not fired after mistakes of more than $1 million. House Bill 1986 could have affected recent mistakes on pontoons built for a new state Route 520 floating bridge and on a misplaced ramp on the Nalley Valley Viaduct.

“Take the pontoon fiasco. I can’t think of a corporation or business, however small or large, that somebody wouldn’t have to resign because they cost the shareholders or owners that kind of money,” said Rep. Steve O’Ban, a Tacoma Republican who introduced the reporting measure.

Inslee has said officials have zeroed in on a solution for cracking in the pontoons.

TARGETING PERMITS

Two other measures take on environmental regulations.

House Bill 1236 would require state environmental agencies to issue permits within 90 days — on a wide array of projects, public or private, not just transportation.

Permitting agencies would have to make quick evaluations of the potential for damage or pollution by projects, potentially short-circuiting legal challenges by environmental groups and benefiting contractors and other businesses.

Clibborn has signed onto a different permitting bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Hans Zeiger of Puyallup. House Bill 1978 would hone in on transportation permitting, creating a new process for large transportation projects.

The measures could also get some sympathy from supporters of unions, whose members gave House GOP Leader Richard DeBolt a smattering of applause at a Thursday forum where he talked about onerous regulations and a backlog of environmental permits.

“I think there’s sort of a bipartisan sense around: Can we make a quicker and (more transparent) permitting process,” said Rep. Mike Sells, a Democrat and Snohomish County labor leader.

But House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan of Covington also received applause at the Washington State Labor Council forum for defending the sprawl-fighting Growth Management Act. And Clibborn argued efforts to gut the act are a distraction from true cost drivers.

Orcutt said the sprawl rules are preventing communities from building out developments served by already built roads. House Bill 1619, the last part of the package he promoted, would suspend the act for counties where unemployment is at more than 7 percent — currently, nearly the whole state.

Orcutt also calls for ending a build-in-Washington requirement for state ferries, though he doesn’t rank it among Republicans’ top priorities.

A January report by the state Auditor’s Office found the state is spending more on ferries than other purchasers, driven partly by the build-in-Washington rule.

In her speech to labor, Clibborn focused in on that area of disagreement. She said she has seen a “vibrant shipbuilding industry grow” in part because of ferry work.

Clibborn said she would put forward reform bills of her own next week.

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