Democrats stall a Senate transportation package

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Highway 520 bridge traffic last year, where the state is working on a replacement bridge project

It was a desperate last-gasp parliamentary trick.

No one knew if it would work. In fact, no one knows yet if Democratic Sen. Annette Cleveland's attempted maneuver has actually worked. But it stalled a Washington Senate vote on an 11.7-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike from Friday to Monday.

On Friday afternoon, the Democrats kept losing attempts to remove what they objected to in an 11-bill, $15.1 billion transportation package because the Republicans --with one Democratic ally -- outnumbered the minority Democrats 26-23.

That included a bill to provide revenue for the package, which would phase in the gas tax increase over three years, plus increasing and installing some other fees. The Democrats were ready to support the gas tax bill, if the Republicans would remove a plank they object to. The provision would shift much of the package’s transit, pedestrian and bike-path money to work on roads if Gov. Jay Inslee installs low-carbon fuel standards.

That plank has been called a "poison pill." The Democrats hate it. The GOP steadfastly refuses to remove it.

After the Democrats failed to get that provision removed on the Senate floor, Cleveland, D-Vancouver, asked the Senate's presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, for a ruling on whether the revenue bill – with some new fees as well the hike in the gas tax hike and existing fees -- would require a two-thirds majority to pass.

She was referring to the enactment by the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus of a rule on the first day of the 2015 session. Over Democratic objections, the majority coalition installed rule that any new taxes would need a two-thirds majority green light in a preliminary procedural vote. The rule's designers, Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, and Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, intended the rule to apply only to new taxes, not to increases in existing taxes.

The GOP admitted in January that the rule was designed allow a gas tax increase with a simple majority, while imposing a two-thirds barrier in front of Inslee's proposed new capital gains and carbon emissions taxes.

Owen said Friday that he did not know how he would rule, and that he would announce his ruling on Cleveland's question on Monday. Complicating the situation is the definition of "a new tax," whether the more obscure revenue measures in the bill could be considered new taxes, and the exact wording on how the rules and the transportation bill were written.

All this parliamentary maneuvering is because of the so-called "poison pill." Republicans don't want Inslee to install low-carbon fuel standards, so they put in the poison pill plank. Their stance is that a public facing a gas tax increase from 37.5 cents to 49.2 cents a gallon should not have to face another gas price increase, brought about by a requirement that some gasoline in Washington must have a low-carbon content.

Democrats argued that the low-carbon fuel standard battle should be kept separate from a transportation package. Mass transit is a fundamental need for the poor, disabled and city dwellers, and should not be held hostage to an unrelated fight on low-carbon fuel standards, the Democrats contended.

Although the Senate's next step will have to wait for a ruling from Owen, the majority coalition won 26-23 a fight to transfer sales tax revenue on state-transportation-related construction projects from the state's general fund to a transportation-related fund. That's roughly $1 billion over the 16-year lifespan of the package. The general fund provides money to education, social services and numerous other functions.

Democrats argued this money is needed to meet the state education requirements needs from a 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling and a 2014 initiative to drastically improve teacher-student ratios in Grades K-12.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said that this bill corrects an illegal use of transportation money for non-transportation purposes. Baumgartner said the extra transportation funds would create more jobs to send more tax revenue to the general fund.

Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, countered: "This bill should be called the 'defund education first' bill." Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, added: "Now the new plan is to remove funding (from education) and put it into concrete."

Meanwhile, on another 26-to-23 vote, Democrats lost an attempt to allow Sound Transit to ask voters for up to $15 billion in funding options to invest in transit expansion in the Puget Sound region. The Republican held the maximum funding options for Sound Transit voters to $11 billion.

Regardless of whether the Senate passes a transportation revenue bill on Monday, the Democratic-controlled House probably won't address it until April.

The House Democrats want to hold off on dealing with several matters until they unveil their proposed 2015-2017 operating budget in late March. That late March proposal will show whether the House Democrats want to install Inslee's proposed capital gains tax plus all or part of his proposed carbon emissions tax into their budget. Inslee wants to spend part of his proposed carbon emissions tax on transportation in order to trim the probable gas tax increase. And any capital gains and the remaining money from a carbon emissions tax proposal -- if they are in the House budget -- would likely go to the implementing a 2012 Supreme Court ruling on teacher-student ratios in Grades K-3.

Complicating the House Democrats' picture is that their leaders have not decided yet whether to implement a 2014 voter initiative to improve teacher-student ratios in Grades 4-12, or to try to send that initiative back to voters in November.

Plus, the House Democratic leaders want to nail down the education funding picture prior to tackling the transportation revenue situation -- meaning the end-of-session negotiations will likely have education and transportation issues intertwined.

This story has been updated since it first appeared to correct the amount of money the general fund could lose from the change in sales tax collection for transportation projects.


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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 and on Twitter at @johnstang_8