Transportation improvements stall out as Legislature gets ready to go home

It could be next year before efforts to revive a state transportation package.
A highway construction project.

A highway construction project. Ed Schipul/Flickr

Talks on a Washington transportation package have gone into a cryogenic freeze, to be awakened who knows when.

Republican and Democratic negotiators acknowledged Wednesday that it would likely be months, maybe 2015, before the transportation talks are finished. Each side blames the other for the lack of movement in the talks. Each side claims to have moved more than the other.

In addition, each side has engaged in political gamesmanship over two budget shifts that the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus wants, and the Senate and House Democrats do not want.

The Republican-dominated Majority Coalition wants to get rid of the sales tax on transportation construction materials, which would reduce money to the state's general fund. The coalition also wants to shift the funding of stormwater-runoff projects from gas-tax revenue to a state Ecology Department-related hazardous substances tax. Both measures are deal-breakers for the Democrats, who note that losing this money from the state's general fund will either cut into the Washington Supreme Court-mandated education improvements, or lead to large losses in social services.

Neither side has budged on those two issues.

And neither side has any idea when talks might resume.

On Wednesday, Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and lead House Democrat negotiator, said the two sides are too far apart and are making insufficient progress in their talks. Consequently, she said, she does not believe the impasse will be resolved until 2015. "I am furious. I am frustrated as anybody," Clibborn said.

She also noted that only 13 members of the 26-member Majority Coalition support its transportation stance, and the coalition needs to pick up 12 more Republicans or Democrats or both before her House Democratic colleagues will considers the coalition's stance as legitimate. The Senate has 49 members. 

The Senate Majority Coalition's lead negotiator, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, retorted: “From the very beginning, the [coalition] has prioritized reforms, and additional revenue was never off the table. But in the end, the Senate’s minority Democrats weren’t serious about making the tough reforms. They were more interested in tax increases and sound bites, despite knowing as well as I do that the state can’t win public support for a multibillion-dollar transportation package without first establishing that we are serious about fixing the waste, mismanagement and abuse that exists within the system.”

The Majority Coalition — which generally hates any tax increase — has gradually unveiled a $12.3 billion 10-year proposal with an 11.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase. Last May, the House and Senate Democrats announced their $10.5 billion proposals with a 10.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase. The current state gas tax is 37.5 cents a gallon. The coalition package completes some work that the Democratic proposal does not.

Without new revenue, the Washington State Department of Transportation is poised to cut ferry service and dramatically trim maintenance on highways and bridges because of a lack of money. And the longer the deadlock continues, the more likely it is that delays will occur in overhauling State Route 520 west of the Lake Washington, finishing the new 520 bridge over the lake, widening Washington's east-west artery of Interstate 90 in the Cascade Mountains and finishing the Interstate 395/North Spokane Corridor highway project. All this means that both the blue and red parts of the state will be hurting.

Gov. Jay Inslee and both parties in the Legislature have said they want a package of transportation improvements, something that many businesses argue is important to maintaining the momentum of the state's economic recovery.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.

John Stang covers state government for Crosscut. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Mar 13, 5:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Each side blames the other for the lack of movement in the talks. Each side claims to have moved more than the other.

--hey Sen. Tom, you promised we would "get things done" with the new Majority Coalition? Really?

This is Stewardship? Good grief...

Rich1

Posted Thu, Mar 13, 6:29 a.m. Inappropriate

If Democrats could "get things done" during thier years of One Party Majority Control,thirty years in the Governors mansion and multiple tax increases, why is there still a problem? Good Grief indeed.

Cameron

Posted Thu, Mar 13, 9:19 a.m. Inappropriate

I don't usually agree with much the Republicans put forward, but getting rid of the sales tax WE pay on transportation construction materials is a yes for me. How is it that our government has required us to tax OURSELVES when buying materials to do public projects? We should never have paid that tax, and it should be eliminated not just for transportation construction materials, but for EVERYTHING the government buys for public purposes. Forcing us to pay ourselves sales tax is a tremendous cost that I don't think most people realize we're paying.

And while we're at it, we should quit paying contractors, or anyone, to pick up our compostable materials and supply them to Cedar Grove. We don't own Cedar Grove. They're a private business, and while I can support the idea that composting certain of our waste is desirable, I cannot support this corporate welfare. If Cedar Grove can't provide itself with the materials it needs to run its business, then we should allow an entity that can to pick up our compostables and take them away.

mspat

Posted Thu, Mar 13, 6:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Paying sales tax on highway projects is using gas tax revenue for the general fund. That should be illegal. That is just one more way in which motorists are subsidizing non-motorists.

Take the transit, bicycle and pedestrian garbage out of the bill and pass a roads-only package that does not have sales taxes on highway projects.

Lincoln

Posted Tue, Apr 15, 7:46 p.m. Inappropriate

I read where next year will be spent on McCleary. Transportation may be delayed until 2016...or after multiple tragedies occur (the bridge collapse over the Skagit River last May, thankfully without fatalities, wasn’t enough).

These are really telling quotes: Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett,” we have a number of issues in this state we can’t seem to get a handle on.” Hmmm, it sounds like we need some new "handlers." A highlight of the election-year session, he said was: “we’re going to get out on time.” Apparently, the people's business is secondary. Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, said: “We didn’t raise your taxes, we didn’t send them (voters) a transportation bill they would have rejected. We kept the lid on spending.” He apparently knows how the voters will vote without asking them. Perhaps voters aren't needed?

bricsa

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