Olympia fail: No appetite for transportation compromise

The governor and legislative leaders say they will try again next year, but resisting compromise is getting to be a habit.
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Traffic on I-405 near the Highway 520 interchange: Is help on the way?

The governor and legislative leaders say they will try again next year, but resisting compromise is getting to be a habit.

Olympia is punting on a legislative transportation package until at least 2014. The breakdown, announced Wednesday afternoon, continues a familiar and dysfunctional pattern: legislative Republicans and Democrats resisting compromise on most major issues. 

The closed-door talks on transportation have already dragged on for eight to 11 months, depending on when you start the clock on the negotiations.

On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee, along with Republican and Democratic negotiators released a joint statement saying: "... it has become clear this phase of the process has run its course and we have not reached an agreement." Talks will resume when the Legislature meets for a 60-day "short" session, which starts on Jan. 13, according to the joint release.

The 2013-2015 operating budget talks lasted through 57 days of special sessions, resolved only when the looming threat of a partial government shutdown was less than three days away. Workers compensation reforms, allowing undocumented high school graduates to get financial aid for college, and expanding abortion insurance coverage all died at the hands of partisan deadlock. And, despite six months of discussions and a Dec. 31 deadline to come up with a joint plan, Republicans and Democrats are extremely far apart on how to deal with the carbon emissions that affect global warming and threaten the state's shellfish industry.

On the transportation impasse, both Republican and Democratic proposals include similarly long lists of construction and fix-it projects, which have received overwhelming public support. The Democratic proposal is heavier on mass transit appropriations. Both proposals would give King and Snohomish counties the legal ability to levy their own fees as a way to raise revenue. Snohomish and King county governments, with a good deal of public support, have been fighting for new, permanent levy authority for almost a year. Without new revenue, King County faces a projected 17 percent cut in its Metro transit service in 2014.

So that levy authority — and one potential solution to King County Metro's budgetary fate — remain in limbo until 2014.

The Democrats had a $10.5 billion transportation proposal, financed in part by a 10.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike, which the House passed in May. The current state gas tax is 37.5 cents a gallon. House Republicans and the 23-Republican-two-Democrat Senate majority coalition originally took a no-tax-hike stance. The majority coalition's current proposal of $11.5 billion with a gas tax hike of 11.5 cents a gallon is still technically an informal one, because it has never been mapped out in a proposed bill.

The other major disputes will, most likely, involve budget-shifting issues. 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. Democrats have opposed both proposals because they would ultimately shift money from other programs — most likely social-services. 

The delay in resolving transportation package disputes now raises the possibility of the details in this impasse becoming political bargaining chips in other issues in the 2014 session.

One possible overlapping battle is Inslee's likely push to enforce the 2008 state law that set a goal for reducing the state's greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 — with further trimming to 25 percent below the 1990 level by 2035, and 50 percent below by 2050. So far, nothing has happened in that arena. Early this year, the Legislature passed a bill that gave this task force a Dec. 31 deadline for making recommendations.

Inslee wants to put a cap on Washington's carbon emissions and install a cap-and-trade program for the state's industries. The state's business interests strongly oppose that concept. And Republicans want to change the emission-reduction targets that the state adopted in 2008.

Look for carbon emissions and transportation legislation to become intertwined in this Legislature, where Democrats and Republicans have made a habit of holding hostages — and engaging in extensive brinkmanship.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8