House narrowly approves 4-cent gas tax hike


Associated Press
King 5 News

OLYMPIA, WA-- The House Democrats’ $3.1 billion plan to ease traffic congestion has narrowly passed the full House but negotiators said the two legislative chambers remain far apart as they search for a compromise.

The plan, anchored by a 4-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase phased in at a penny per year, cleared the House 51-46 Tuesday night after a lengthy partisan debate.

It is the first major tax hike to pass either house this year, but the Republican Senate is poised to pass an even larger tax package for transportation, including a nickel increase in the gas tax. The rate is now 23 cents a gallon.

Two Eastern Washington Republicans, Rep. Shirley Hankins of Richland and Rep. Dave Mastin of Walla Walla, put a bloc of 49 Democrats over the top. Democrats Brian Blake of Aberdeen, Mark Miloscia of Federal Way and Dawn Morrell of Puyallup voted no.

The House gave a stronger vote to a new state transportation budget, voting 57-40 for a $4.2 billion spending plan for the next two years. Five Republicans joined all 52 Democrats in favor.

The budget presumes passage of the new taxes and would infuse hundreds of millions in new spending for highways, ferries, rail and mass transit.

House Transportation Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, called the tax package “a modest and moderate proposal.” He said it begins the long-term task of financing congestion relief and safety projects.

Experts say the state has a backlog of at least $50 billion in needed transportation improvements.

The finance package is designed for approval in Olympia rather than being put to the voters in November, as anti-tax activist Tim Eyman wants.

Murray said the package was purposely kept smaller—and better—than the $7.7 billion Referendum 51 package that voters trounced last fall. The Legislature also is approving efficiency measures and reforms, he said.

The revenue package is “a jobs-maker” that would generate as many as 12,000 new construction and spinoff jobs, said Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Anacortes.

The package was unveiled just a day earlier. The original Democratic plan would have boosted the gas tax by 3 cents a gallon. The new plan increases the tax by 4 cents, but implements it over four years, rather than all at once in July.

It would raise $3.1 billion over 10 years, about $500 million more than the original House Democratic plan. It’s similar to the $3.2 billion package drafted by the governor, but a full $1 billion below the Senate level.

The House also imposes a vehicle tax of 0.46 percent, a 15 percent trucking surcharge, and a $20 fee for motorists who want to keep their same license plates. The state requires motorists to get new plates every seven years.

The plan would raise $2.5 billion for highways and auto ferries, $346 million for public transportation and $257 million for passenger and freight rail.

Minority Republicans said voters are in no mood to raise taxes unless lawmakers first demonstrate that they’re serious about overhauling the highway system. They offered amendments dealing with prevailing wages paid to construction crews, contracting out of some state agency functions, and streamlining permits on some projects.

“This looks so much like R-51, I would be embarrassed to send this to my people back home,” said Rep. Tom Mielke, R-Battle Ground.

Republicans tried without success to peel off all of the tax increases except for the gas tax. Rep. Jan Shabro, R-Bonney Lake, said voters will be furious with “license-tab creep” beyond the $30 a year they’ve voted for twice.

That was a reference to the $20 license plate fee, the vehicle transfer tax and a special $2 annual clean air fee.

“People are hanging on by their fingernails” in this recession, said Rep. Jim Clements, R-Selah. “Let’s tough it out. Let the transportation system wait.”

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Murray said the House is making a good-faith effort to meet the Senate halfway.

“This is forward progress, and I would hope they receive it well,” the speaker said in an interview.

Murray and his Senate counterpart, Jim Horn, said they haven’t given up on finding a compromise, but conceded that both sides are dug in.

Horn, a Mercer Island Republican, said it’s unlikely the Senate will accept less than a nickel gas tax increase and wants the emphasis on road-building. The House is unlikely to go beyond 4 cents and wants a balance of roads and non-highway spending, Morris said.

Eyman said Tuesday night that the close House vote shows that “The Son of 51 is doomed unless they come to grips with the fact that they have major roadblocks to deal with. They need some fundamental reforms. They need to remember that voters twice voted for $30 tabs and they need to do something about Sound Transit”—the troubled regional transit agency in the central Puget Sound area.


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