'Poison pill' in gas tax plan worry enviros

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Some environmental groups objected to a "poison pill" that could hurt state funding for transit. Other people at a hearing on a proposed state transportation package praised the plans for new highways and bridges.

No one really praised or opposed an 11 cents-per-gallon gas tax hike at the hearing Wednesday before the Senate Transportation Committee. The hearing examined the revenue portion of a recently unveiled compromise $15.1 billion, 16-year transportation package.

A large number of Washington mayors and economic groups liked the proposed Washington Senate transportation package -- in a broad, generic way.

Forty to 45 mayors, city and county council members and economic group representatives praised the proposed package, almost exclusively in terms of getting needed highway and bridge projects done. Several said they supported the revenue package in a general way, but never went into detail.

No one specifically mentioned the proposed gas tax increases of 5 cents per gallon in 2016, a 4.2 cents increase in 2017, and a 2.5 cents increase in 2018. Washington's current gas tax is 37.5 cents a gallon. A few of the environmentalists mentioned the gas tax hike in passing -- taking no position on it.

But representatives from a half-dozen Puget Sound environmentalist organizations -- plus an adviser to Gov. Jay Inslee -- objected to the "poison pill" provision in the package. That provision says that if Inslee installs low-carbon fuel standards, a pet project of his, then the Senate would shift transit, pedestrian and bike-path money to work on roads.

"Asking for this trade is unnecessary, and it pits two critical needs against each other," argued Jessica Finn Coven of Seattle-based Climate Solutions. Charles Knutson, the governor's transportation adviser, said, "We have some concerns about the strings attached to the proposal."

The Senate Transportation Committee members are expected to vote Thursday on moving the package to a full floor vote in the Senate. This will be the first test of how much the Republicans and Democrats actually support the package. And it will give a partial picture on how much negotiating will need to be done between the two caucuses prior to a full floor vote.

When GOP and Democratic negotiators unveiled the proposal last week, they acknowledged that they will have to convince their own caucuses to support it. Questions hover over whether the more conservative members of the GOP caucus will support a gas tax increase. Some of the more liberal members of the Democratic caucus might oppose a gas tax hike in favor of a carbon emissions tax on major polluters that Inslee has proposed or they might be influenced by the environmentalists' concerns about the poison pill.


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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