Locke offers 4-cent-a-gallon gas-tax increase, emergency clause to prevent voter referendum
By DAVID AMMONS
OLYMPIA, WA(AP) -- Gov. Gary Locke went public Wednesday with a 4-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase proposal as part of a decade-long, $3.2 billion transportation fix.
He suggested lawmakers plan a Monday night negotiating marathon on the transportation issue -- "make it an all-nighter if necessary" -- and even offered them the use of his office.
"Time is running out," Locke told a hastily called news conference. "We're trying to impress on everybody the need to really hunker down and reach a compromise."
Last fall, voters soundly rejected a $7.7 billion transportation referendum that featured a 9-cent increase in the state's 23-cent-per-gallon gas tax. Locke was co-chairman of the campaign.
Since then, the governor has quietly pressured the Legislature to pass transportation efficiency and reform bills, followed by a scaled-back revenue plan. Locke is opposing general tax increases to balance the state operating budget, but is willing to advocate taxes for transportation.
"We need the jobs," he said.
He told reporters it's a top priority for his administration and said he had quietly floated his own plan to the transportation negotiators in the Legislature two weeks ago.
When reporters asked to see his plan, Locke initially brushed aside the request. But within 45 minutes he reconsidered and had aides hand-deliver hard copies of his proposal, including a comparison with the plan released a day earlier by the majority House Democrats.
Then the governor elaborated.
He said his proposal was "a jumping off point, the basis for House and Senate counterproposals." He said both houses have made significant concessions, with the House offering more for roads and the Senate moving away from an all-asphalt proposal.
Locke's plan is midway between what the two houses have in mind. The House Democrats have offered a $2.6 billion proposal, including a 3-cent gas tax hike. Senate Republicans haven't gone public with a plan yet, but Transportation Chairman Jim Horn, R-Mercer Island, said he backs a $4.1 billion plan with a nickel gas tax increase.
Horn said the Senate wants to emphasize road-building, believing that to be the most under-financed aspect of the transportation system. The House is pushing a plan that balances highway spending with money for rail, transit and other alternatives.
"We need all modes of transportation to be included -- transit, ferries, passenger rail and freight mobility," the governor said. "Whatever we do in Olympia cannot focus solely on just highways."
Locke's plan also includes a 15 percent increase in trucking fees and a surcharge on motor homes, and a 0.5 percent title transaction excise tax.
Locke said a day earlier that he could accept a 5-cent gas tax increase, but his numbers assume a 4-cent increase, midway between the two houses.
The governor said he agrees with the House Democrats' suggestion for including an emergency clause in the bill, which would make it take effect immediately and foreclose a voter referendum. Republicans oppose that.
Locke said the plan needs to take effect right away so the state doesn't miss the summer construction season. A referendum would put the plan on hold until a vote this November.
Locke noted that a public vote would still be possible, though through a citizen initiative. That approach takes twice as many voter signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Tim Eyman, the anti-tax rebel who hopes to force a public vote on any tax or fee increase, said Wednesday "It's a game of chicken with the voters" if they're cut out of the decision.
"All that will do is throw gasoline on the people's distrust of government," Eyman said.
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