What We Are Watching for in Washington Senate’s Transportation Listening Sessions

By Larry Ehl, September 17, 2013, Transportation Issues Daily

When Washington State Senate leaders said they’d spend time trying to craft a transportation investment proposal that could pass the Senate and survive a public vote, we were skeptical. After all, in the closings days of session they had refused to enable a vote on a House proposal to raise the gas tax to fund a handful of projects, and highway/bridge maintenance. Many Republican Senators – and a few Democrats – openly opposed the gas tax increase, and the lack of policy and operations reforms. Even if the vote had been allowed, a majority almost certainly would have defeated the bill. This op-ed by Republican Senator Linda Evans Parlette, Majority Coalition Caucus Chair, explains the concerns well: “Make your voice heard on transportation policy“ (Wenatchee World).

So we thought the announcement by the Senate coalition leadership (Majority Coalition Caucus or “MCC”) was just more political theater. But then they announced a series of public meetings across the state to hear about transportation needs, possible solutions, and to talk up their proposed reforms. We thought, maybe they were serious after all.

We remained skeptical. We thought there would be just a few pro forma meetings. MCC Senators would promote the reforms, and downplay the need for revenue. The usual suspects would testify, on both sides of the issue. Little if any public input would be taken. Little would change.

But once again we were pleasantly surprised. Meetings were scheduled across the state – ten of them, in all regions of the state – surpassing our expectations in both regards. Time is set aside in each meeting for public input. The Democratic co-chair of the Transportation Committee expressed support for the process. Senators will have a chance to hear about all kinds of transportation issues: urban, rural, impacts on agriculture and manufacturing, in addition to roads, rail, transit and bike-ped.

Certainly, a good deal of the discussion at these meetings will focus on the MCC’s proposed reforms which include but aren’t limited to changing prevailing wage requirements, eliminating the state sales tax on transportation projects, and streamlining the permitting process.

The Yakima Herald’s Editorial Board gives us this good reminder heading into these meetings:  “[T]he political reality [is] that the state must demonstrate it is using tax dollars wisely before it goes asking for more. Not only must lawmakers run for re-election based on this vote, but an increase could well find its way onto the ballot — as it did in 2005 after legislators approved a phased-in 9.5-cent increase and opponents garnered enough signatures to put it on the ballot. The voters upheld that one, (Valley gets chance to voice priorities on transportation).”

So far, the Senate Coalition’s actions have mirrored it’s words. But we – and many others – still have questions.

Here are our top four questions. Some are ours, some were contributed by stakeholders in various public agencies and interest groups. Once the ten meetings are over, we’ll answers these questions as best we can. If you have a question, or want to want to help us answer them when the meetings conclude, contact us.

1. Who shows up to speak? Will anyone other than lobbyists, project proponents and the anti-tax crowd show up to testify?  As one stakeholder commented: The “public” isn’t likely to be too interested in these things. It’s the interest groups that will organize and show up in numbers. Will the transit and bicycle groups use numbers to make an impression? The business and freight lobby rarely generates big groups – they have to use other means to direct policy. Another stakeholder commented:Transportation is so important for the ag industry – will they participate at all?

2. Who shows up to listen? How many Senators show up at the meetings? How many attend multiple meetings? Do Representatives show up? Does the Governor’s staff show up? How many Democratic Members show up?

3. Is anyone open-minded about the proposed reforms? Are Republicans and their supporting interest groups willing to compromise on any details of some of the proposals? Are Democrats and their supporting interest groups willing to support some of the reforms?  What is the public’s response (if any) to the reforms? Can consensus be developed for practical, pragmatic politically achievable reforms? Will stakeholders be willing to compromise, or will they kill consensus? Related question: How many anti-tax proponents are open-minded to a gas tax increase if the reforms can be agreed to?

4. Will there be an honest discussion about projects, economic development and jobs? Everyone claims their project will generate economic development and provide jobs. But funding is tight, and few projects will be funded. Will there be any conversation about objective criteria for selecting projects for funding? About funding projects that will have a statewide and/or regional impact, and an impact beyond just construction jobs? It’s a mystery to me why there isn’t more conversation about establishing objective criteria to determine project funding. On the other hand, sometimes projects have to be included for political reasons (e.g., securing votes).

(By the way, it’s not just construction jobs at stake.  The National Association of Manufacturers just today released a major survey of executives at factory firms on their views about “the readiness of the U.S. supply chain’s transportation infrastructure. A whopping 70 percent of the 400 or so manufacturers surveyed graded the system poor or just fair, and 61 percent said they’d pay more in taxes, tolls and other fees to upgrade transportation facilities if assured the money raised would actually go into upgrades.”)

5. Did the odds of a deal on a transportation reforms and investment bill increase because of the meetings?

Additional questions:

What was the level of activity on social media, and was a particular interest group more active than others?

What will the (MCC) do if the public testimony doesn’t square with their stated priorities?”

Will passenger rail come up at all?

Are they really “listening”? Or is this a veiled advisory vote to argue against a gas tax because the public (who show up and speak) won’t support it.

Were the meetings bipartisan – did Democratic Senators participate? Did House Members participate?

How does the Inslee Administration participate, if at all? What role is the Governor playing in the meetings and the information that comes out of them?

Are these scripted events, or true listening sessions?

Contact Form Powered By : XYZScripts.com