Nickel gas-tax increase may be consensus

By Andrew Garber
Seattle Times Olympia bureau


OLYMPIA, WA— Key lawmakers crafting a statewide transportation plan say all negotiators have been willing to support a five-cent-a-gallon gas-tax increase, except House Speaker Frank Chopp.

That may be changing. According to Rep. Ed Murray, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Chopp indicated yesterday he's willing to consider a nickel increase if he has the votes to pass it, and other issues are resolved.

That represents a significant change, said Murray, D-Seattle. "Before, leadership was unwilling to go to five cents."

Chopp, D-Seattle, said he has not been standing in the way of a deal. "It's not just me," said Chopp, who serves the same district as Murray. "It's all about counting votes."

Still, Chopp would not state his own position on the issue. "I don't believe in revealing positions in the press."

The amount of a gas-tax increase has been a major sticking point in a package that would raise several billion dollars for highways and other transportation projects. Agreement on the tax increase would make it easier to close a deal on the entire plan, some lawmakers said.

Voters last year rejected Referendum 51, a $7.8 billion transportation tax package that included a nine-cent-a-gallon gas-tax increase.

The Senate recently passed a $4.1 billion transportation plan that raises the gas tax by a nickel. The House passed a $3.1 billion plan that includes a four-cent increase, phased in over four years. Negotiators have been unable to reach a compromise on the tax or on how to spend the money.

Everyone has been willing to go to a straight nickel increase except for Chopp, who preferred a penny-a-year increase phased in over five years, said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler.

A straight nickel gas tax would raise an estimated $1.75 billion in revenue over 10 years. A phased-in tax would raise about $300 million less.

Gov. Gary Locke's staff yesterday said the governor would support a straight nickel increase.

Kessler said she'd vote for a straight nickel increase in the gas tax but agrees with Chopp's concerns.

"I think he's right on this — it's easier to absorb a penny a year than a nickel straight up," she said.

"Are we going to give the public what we think they can accept, or do we want to give them a nickel right away and run the risk of having them vote it down?" Kessler said.

"Frank thinks that is a risk, and I think he's right."

Anti-tax activist Tim Eyman has a standing threat to force a public vote if the Legislature raises taxes.

Senate Republicans and Democrats, however, won't budge on a nickel increase.

"We really feel we need five cents and we don't feel a penny a year is going to get us there," said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, ranking Democrat on the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee. "It just doesn't raise enough money. You can't solve the problem. You give the people a lot of false hope."

Even with a deal on how much to increase taxes, there's still disagreement over how to spend any money raised.

Senate Republicans say the House plan doesn't spend enough money on highway projects. House Democrats say the Senate plan doesn't provide enough money for other forms of transportation, such as public transit.

Without new funding, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) expects to mothball projects, such as replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge. The ferry system plans to eliminate passenger-only ferries, and new highway construction will largely grind to a halt.

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or

Seattle Times reporter Ralph Thomas contributed to this article.


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