What’s Holding Up Multibillion-Dollar State Transportation Bill?

By Andrew Garber, November 30, 2013, Seattle Times

House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn can tell when people think there’s a real chance the Legislature might pass a multibillion dollar transportation-tax package: New requests for projects start pouring in.

Clibborn said she was besieged when state lawmakers met recently for committee hearings. “I probably had $500 million to $1 billion of new projects proposed,” she said. People would tell her: “You know, I kind of like the project I have in the package, but for just another $200 million, you could do this. I’d say, ‘You’re the fifth person who’s said that.’ ”

While her experience may signal hope for a tax package, negotiators still — after almost a year of talks — have not overcome a partisan divide over issues including stormwater treatment, sales taxes collected from transportation projects, and funding for public transit

“I think there is a narrow pathway where you don’t lose votes in the House and maybe you gain votes in the Senate and you’re able to get (a deal),” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. “But it’s a real fine line.”

The GOP-led majority in the Senate and the Democratic majority in the House are negotiating a tax package that would increase the state gas tax by more than 10 cents a gallon and fund about $10 billion to $12 billion worth in transportation spending over the next 12 years, including the new Highway 520 bridge and improvements to Interstate 405 and I-90.

Pressure is mounting to get a deal done. Boeing, always concerned about its ability to move people and products on the state’s highways, has indicated passage of a transportation package could factor into its decision about where to build the 777X.

Gov. Jay Inslee has said he’d call a special session before the end of the year if negotiators can reach agreement, and if they’re sure they have the votes.

Though there’s been progress, time is running out to get a deal before the start of the next regular legislative session which starts Jan. 13.

Clibborn said if no agreement is reached before the start of the session, “I think you just start over. You go back to committee, the thinking goes back to a new place. We have to start over.”

But Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom contends lawmakers can keep the momentum going even if talks push into next year.

Entrenched divide

On the surface, the two sides don’t seem that far apart.

House and Senate negotiators indicate they’re close to agreement on a lengthy list of projects that includes billions to widen Interstate 405, extend the North Spokane freeway, make highway improvements around Joint Base Lewis-McChord and extend Highways 509 and 167 between Seattle and Tacoma.

Plans proposed by both sides also include more than $1 billion to maintain existing highways.

The proposal by the GOP-led majority in the Senate would increase the state gas tax by 11.5 cents per gallon, while the House plan increases the tax 10.5 cents per gallon. Both proposals also include various weight fees.

The Senate plan would raise roughly $12 billion over 12 years, compared to $10 billion in the House plan.

Still, you don’t have to dig far to find entrenched disagreements.

One of the biggest involves how to spend sales-tax revenue from transportation projects. That money now goes into the state general fund, which pays for operating expenses including health care and education.

The Senate majority wants that slice of sales-tax revenue to be applied to transportation projects, estimating it could boost spending by $750 million over the next 12 years.

Democrats want the money to remain in the general fund, saying the state will need billions of dollars in the coming years to meet a state Supreme Court mandate to increase funding for education.

Both the majority caucus in the Senate and House Democrats say they will lose votes for the transportation package if they give in to the other side on this issue.

Votes on the line

Likewise, both caucuses say they have votes on the line when it comes to a dispute over the Model Toxics Control Act, a voter-approved law that went into effect in 1989. The law created a fund to clean up hazardous-waste sites.

The account collects more than $200 million annually, primarily from a 0.7 percent tax on the wholesale value of hazardous substances. Most of the tax is paid by oil refineries.

The Senate majority caucus says it wants to shift $280 million from the account over 12 years into the transportation package and spend the money on stormwater improvements, such as creating retention ponds to store runoff from older highways.

Democrats and environmental groups oppose the move, arguing gas-tax dollars should pay for stormwater systems and that taking money from the Model Toxics account would reduce funding for hazardous-waste cleanup.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, chairman of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, said there’s enough money flowing into the account to pay for stormwater work in the transportation plan without affecting cleanup efforts.

Cliff Traisman, a lobbyist for Washington Conservation Voters and Washington Environmental Council, disagrees. He contends there’s a backlog of sites that need cleanup and that moving money to stormwater projects reduces what’s available for hazardous-waste removal.

“We have a very strong block of members in the House and Senate who care deeply about preserving toxic cleanup for our community,” Traisman said.

Hot political topic

Funding for transit, sidewalks and bike paths — a hot political topic in the central Puget Sound region — also divides negotiators.

The Senate proposal sharply reduces the amount of money for those types of projects compared with the House proposal.

Republicans note their plan, like the House’s, provides local governments with options to seek extra funding on their own. The Senate plan also increases the amount of money going directly to cities and counties for transportation needs, compared with the House proposal.

The Senate allocates $734 million in “direct distributions” that could be used on things like transit and bike paths, but local governments would decide how to spend the money. The House plan includes less discretionary funding.

Democrats and environmental groups said they’re concerned local governments would spend most of the local aid in the Senate plan maintaining streets and filling potholes, rather than building sidewalks and bike paths.

The majority caucus in the Senate, in general, wants to focus more of the state’s spending on building and maintaining highways.

“I would submit that bike and pedestrian paths are not the biggest hurdle we need to face at this time,” said Sen. Curtis King, co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

It’s not clear how much wiggle room negotiators have on the issues dividing them.

Both King and Tom said the sales-tax and Model Toxics proposals are particularly important to their caucus, and agreement on those issues is needed to move forward.

“It gives us a reason to help vote for this package,” King said. “None of us like voting for tax increases. That’s true of most of my caucus.”

Democratic negotiators, on the other hand, say both of those proposals would cost votes in the House.

The outcome will hinge on finding enough votes in both parties to get a package through.

That was true back in 2005, when the Legislature passed its last transportation package, which increased the gas tax by 9.5 cents. That legislation made it out of the House with a 54-43 vote, but only with the help of 11 Republicans who sided with the Democratic majority.

“It’s going to take a mix and a match,” Tom said. “These votes are going to be very different depending on what element you’re talking about.”

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