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Legislature struggling with transportation deal

Seattle Traffic_Oran Viriylncy

The 47 Washington House's minority Republicans might have the votes to stop implementation of a large part of a transportation package financed by an 11.9-cents per gallon gasoline tax increase.

The package is built around issuing bonds to finance the $16.1 billion worth of work on transportation projects over 16 years.

Most of those 47 Republicans passionately hate that gasoline tax increase, which the House passed 54-44 early this morning.

But the bill to approve the bonds to pay for part of that $16.1 billion needs 60 percent of the 98 House members to pass — 59. There are 51 Democrats in the House. That means the outnumbered Republicans, normally inevitable losers on House floor votes, have the clout to stop a bill and the program that it is linked to.

Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and the lead House Democrat on transportation, believes there are more than 59 House members ready to vote for the bonds. The bonds are needed to ensure all the highway, bridge and ferry projects — which both Republicans and Democrats love — will actually go through. So some tax-hike-hating Republicans now face the choice of whether to stop a major portion of the transportation improvements.

But the House leaders decided to adjourn at 3:25 a.m. today before that vote could be actually taken. Negotiations on this package began 25 months ago in May 2013.

The big sticking point was the gasoline tax increase, which would raise that tax from 37.5 cents a gallon to 49.4 cents a gallon over the next two years.

When the Senate and House Democratic and Republican transportation negotiators reached a handshake agreement on the $16.1 billion package, part of their bargain was for neither chamber to add any amendments. The Senate passed the tax increase 39-9 on Monday with no attempts at amending it.

But late Tuesday and early today in the House, one Democratic and two Republican amendments were submitted. Approval of any would send the gas tax hike bill back to the Senate to see if it would approve the amended version. The Democratic amendment was approved. But two Republican amendments, including one to send the gas tax increase to a public ballot in November, were defeated.

“The people of Washington don’t want this, and we’re not letting them vote on this,” said Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, criticized the public vote amendment: “This is an attempt to cause gridlock in our transportation package.”

More than 12 hours — mostly in behind-the-scenes negotiations, closed caucus meetings and lots of waiting by the House rank-and file — were spent on the gas tax and bond bills with the work only half completed by 3:25 a.m. today.

The one successful amendment came from Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle. The origin of Farrell’s amendment is complicated, but it related to the use of transportation construction projects' sales tax money and Sound Transit projects. The amendment guarantees that $500 million related to $15 billion in Sound Transit tax authorizations will be spent on educational improvements only within King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, whose taxpayers finance Sound Transit. That $500 million also will not be allowed to go toward the state’s overall court-required efforts to improve teacher-student ratios in Grades K-3.

The Senate approved 37-7 the returned gas tax bill with Farrell’s amendment at 5:15 a.m. today. The Senate also passed 38-6 the transportation bill with all the projects listed in it; the House has not yet tackled that bill. And the Senate approved the bond bill 40-7, while needing just 30 votes to meet the 60 percent threshold.

This package covers hundreds of big and small projects across Washington. The package calls for completing work on several major state transportation projects, including completing the state Route 520 overhaul, upgrading I-405, finishing work on state routes 509 and 167, tackling I-5 congestion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and continuing work on a new I-395 corridor through Spokane.

  

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Legislature struggling with transportation deal