A highway construction project. Credit: Ed Schipul/Flickr
The Senate Majority Coalition Caucus' new transportation package proposal has just 13 caucus votes behind it. Whether that number means better roads, bridges and transit for Washington residents is hard to calculate.
The 13 comes up short of a majority of the 24-Republican-two-Democrat caucus that controls the Washington Senate. That's just half of the caucus. Or 26 percent of the 49-member Senate.
When the majority coalition unveiled its new proposal Thursday, the Democratic reply was essentially: Come back when you have 25 votes —a majority of the Senate — behind it.
"Last I heard, 13 votes don't get you out of the Senate," said House lead transportation negotiator Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.
Flanked by seven coalition members, the group's lead transportation negotiator, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, announced the coalition's latest $12.29 billion proposal, which includes a 11.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike. The coalition's last public stance in 2013 called for a $12.3 billion package with an 11.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase. The House Democrats passed a transportation package — their official start point on negotiations — in May 2013 at $10.5 billion with a 10.5 cent gas tax increase.
More than anything, though, the two stances differ drastically in the details.
The majority coalition argued that their new proposal makes significant progress toward the House Democrats' position. The House and Senate Democrats say it does not.
The biggest sticking point for House & Senate Democrats though, is that they don't want to negotiate against a proposal with only 13 votes behind it. Clibborn and lead Senate Democratic transportation negotiator Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, want a solid majority coalition position as a bill or as a locked-in package with 25 confirmed — and named — votes. "This is not a proposal done in good faith," Eide said.
Eide acknowledged that the 23 minority Democrats could negotiate a Senate transportation bill to match against the House bill with just Sen. King's 13 coalition supporters. That would allow them to come up with a bill that could pass without the support of the other 13 coalition members.
The majority coalition has a significant contingent that opposes all tax hikes. A question is how many of the King 13 would peel off if he made further concessions to the Democrats in upcoming talks.
For the minority Senate Democrats to negotiate solely with the King 13, Eide said she would have to know the names of all 13. The eight coalition senators at King's press conference were King; Majority Coalition Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina; Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond; Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island; Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn; Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville; Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane; and Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee. The first five senators can be safely pigeonholed as moderates in the majority coalition. Becker and Baumgartner are solid conservatives. Parlette is regarded as somewhere in between. The other five of the King 13 have not been made public.
The transportation package talks are almost 10 months old. Asked if the impasse could be resolved by the end of the current session, Tom said, "Absolutely." He said the majority coalition has reserved a room to restart the talks next Wednesday. Clibborn was unsure if she would be there because of the 13-vote issue. Eide said she would be present.
Looming over the Legislature is the fact that, if it does not reach a compromise by mid-March, the Washington State Department of Transportation will have to drastically cut and delay current projects.
If the impasse is not resolved by mid-March, the most-cited scenario says the talks would resume in December — after the November elections. That approach would keep a gas tax hike off the records of all incumbent legislators. King's proposal "is designed as something that we won't accept," charged Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle.
King said the majority coalition's new proposal is better than the House bill because it finishes major projects — such as the rebuilding of State Route 520 west of Lake Washington, an Interstate 90 upgrade on Snoqualmie Pass and the North Spokane highway corridor project — that the House version would not complete within 10 years. The coalition would also increase state patrol salaries.
But King's proposals also have planks that the House and Senate Democrats have opposed for months. The majority coalition wants to get rid of the sales-and-use tax on transportation construction materials, which would reduce money to the state's general fund. The majority coalition also wants to shift the funding of stormwater-runoff projects from gas-tax revenue to a state Ecology Department-related hazardous substances tax.
King said those shifts would not hurt court ordered efforts to improve education. Instead, he and other coalition members contended, the extra resources for highways would boost construction work; a move that would eventually pump hundreds of million of additional tax dollars into the state's economy.
Clibborn and Eide countered that such moves would cripple the general fund and the education measures significantly in the short run. The Legislature's four-year budget plan, they argued, does not account for such a move. Moreover, Clibborn said it would take years for King's tax-pumping ripple effect to occur. "That's not tomorrow. That's not next year. That's not in five years," she said.
King said the majority coalition has moved significantly closer to the House bill in providing for mass transit, bike paths and pedestrian paths. The Democratic leaders said they needed to study the proposal to see if they agree. "At first blush, it seems to be full of funding shifts and accounting tricks," Eide said. "It's robbing Paul to pay Peter."