Transportation spending was MIA in the state's 2013-2015 budget. Credit: Photo: Flickr User SaraiRachel
A 10-cent gas tax hike and the projects that it was supposed to fund died late Saturday afternoon in the Washington Senate. The Legislature adjourned shortly afterward.
The cause of death for the transportation package: It was a tax increase and it would have helped pay to replace the Interstate 5 bridge between Vancouver and Portland — both strongly opposed by Republicans. "Go talk to the people who'll pay the 10 cents gas tax increase," said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima and co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
While current transportation projects are funded, the absence of the new revenue package means no new project can be tackled. Many major state business interests — including the normally tax-adverse Association of Washington Business and Washington Roundtable — wanted the package passed as a jobs-creation measure.
Senate Democrats made a last-gasp attempt Saturday to put the $10 billion transportation revenue package on the floor by using a parliamentary move known as the "Ninth Order." Under the Ninth Order, senators vote on whether to put a bill on the floor directly in an attempt to bypass the majority party's leaders, who control the flow of bills to the full Senate. The majority coalition leaders did not want a floor vote on the transportation revenue package that passed the House on Thursday.
A Ninth Order vote is considered a procedural vote. Under the unwritten but strong code of the Legislature, members are theoretically allowed to vote their beliefs on bills, but are expected to stick with their caucus on procedural votes.
Prior to the Ninth Order vote, Republican Caucus Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, reminded the majority coalition members four times that this "is purely a political procedural vote."
The majority coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats held firm, winning the vote 26-21. Two minority Democrats were absent.
Meanwhile, Sen. Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, crossed the aisle to join the majority coalition on the vote. The move gives Schlicher political cover: His record won't reflect asking for a gas tax hike, a plus when he faces Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, in an expected tough and expensive race in November to replace state Sen. Derek Kilmer, who was elected to Congress. Schlicher was appointed to replace Kilmer and November will be his first election. His no vote on the Ninth Order matter did not affect the outcome of Saturday's showdown.
The Ninth Order vote showed the strength of the coalition of 25 senators — about two-thirds conservative and one-third moderate. The group would only split when a majority coalition deal with the House Democrats required the moderates to cast enough votes to pass a House bill in the Senate.
The death of the House package stops — at least for this year — the extension of State Route 167 in Pierce County to the Port of Tacoma. In fact, Rep. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, cast the only public Republican vote in either chamber to raise money to pay for the State Route 167 project.
Three Republican senators from Pierce County voted against the Ninth Order motion: Randi Becker of Eatonville, Bruce Dammeier of Puyallup and Steve O'Ban of rural Pierce County. The death of the package, on Saturday, also stopped the widening of State Route 12 in Walla Walla County and the development of an interchange in Benton County's Red Mountain wine country, both heavily Republican areas. The dead revenue package would also have paid for improvements on State Route 509 in Pierce and King counties.
Gov. Jay Inslee contended that several Republican senators wanted some type of transportation revenue package to pass before the session ended. "They've been stymied by leaders who wanted to stop any package going through the Senate," said the governor. "They passed no plan for infrastructure improvements in Washington. None."
King said the majority coalition is working on its own transportation revenue package, but added, "Our package is not ready to be released."
Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way and co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, called for the Ninth Order move, knowing that it would fail on the floor. "I wanted them on the record," she explained. "I wanted them to take ownership of this package failing."
Schoesler and King said the $10 billion revenue package came flawed and incomplete from the House. "We do not have 25 votes (in the majority caucus) for the package that came out of the House," Schoesler said.
"You've got to vote on a package that makes sense," added King. "We're a caucus of 25 who are working to stay together."
King contended that since the transportation revenue package was voted out of the House on Thursday, the Senate did not have time to review it and come up with the majority coalition's input before the end of the weekend. The majority coalition was ready to go home 167 days after the Legislature first convened in January. Eide and Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and chair of the House Transportation Committee, disputed the contention that the majority coalition did not have time to study the House package, saying they have been talking with King in detail for months on the specifics of the House revenue package.
Schoesler and King also said that a bonding bill would have needed to pass the House, in order to get the money up front for the new transportation improvement projects. Legally, 60 percent of House members — 59 votes — are required to pass a bond bill. The House barely scraped up 51 votes to pass the revenue package on the second try last week. Inslee's staff contended that the new improvements could start without a bond bill passing this session.