Tough session ahead, local legislators say

On one side are commuters and business interests demanding fixes for the state’s transportation system. On the other, anti-tax fervor fanned by conservative talk-show hosts and initiative mongers.

Caught between the two, the state Legislature will likely turn the whole problem over to the voters.

“Any statewide (transportation) package will go to the voters in any event,” state Rep. Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island) said, as the session got under way Monday in Olympia. “Let’s prepare and plan for that.”

Gov. Gary Locke has proposed a ten-year, $8.5 billion revenue package to begin addressing some of the state’s worst transportation problems.

The centerpiece of Locke’s proposal is a 9 cent per-gallon increase in the 23-cent tax on gasoline, to be phased in over three years. Other revenue would come from a 20 percent weight surcharge on trucks and motor homes and a 1.5 percent sales-tax surcharge on new and used vehicle sales.

The plan is virtually identical to a package Locke pushed last year during the Legislature’s regular session. Despite four special sessions, the Legislature failed to vote on Locke’s proposal, in part because Republicans demanded that the package go to a vote of the people.

This year, the Democrats hold a razor-thin 50-48 majority in the state House of Representatives. But House Democrats are reluctant to adopt any package on a party-line vote, particularly because Tim Eyman has threatened to file an initiative or referendum petition to force any transportation-tax increase to a vote.

State Sen. Betti Sheldon, (D-Tracyton), agrees that putting the package to a popular vote is the political reality.

“I think we have the votes in the Senate to pass a tax increase,” she said, “but I don’t think there are 50 votes in the House, particularly in an election year.”

Rep. Beverly Woods (R-Poulsbo) says there are enough votes in the House “to put a package out to the voters.”

She said the Legislature needs to craft a package that will “earn back the trust of the people,” which would include instituting efficiency measures.

“One of the most important pieces of any transportation package will be to make sure that we’re getting the most we can for our tax dollars,” she said.

Woods commended the efficiency package introduced on Gov. Locke’s behalf by House Transportation Committee chair Ruth Fisher (D-Tacoma).

“It’s a good start,” Woods said. “But we can go further. We’re going to fight for all the efficiencies we can get, and we’re not going to let anyone off the hook.”

Local tax hikes?

Locke’s plan would give local areas the authority to raise additional taxes, with voter approval, to spend on local projects.

With that authority in mind, Sen. Dan MacDonald, (R-Bellevue), and Rep. Edward Murray, (D-Seattle) have crafted an ambitious $16 billion plan for the heavily congested Puget Sound metropolitan area, in which voters in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties could boost their own taxes and fees to pay for projects such as I-405 and the Lake Washington floating bridge.

Kitsap County’s legislators are wary of a regional approach.

“If those counties raise their own taxes that much, it’s less likely they will go along with statewide projects,” Woods said. “That would hurt the rest of the state and Kitsap County.”

Sheldon agreed, saying a statewide package would have to be approved before she could support a regional package.

“I don’t want to put our communities into a position where they would have to vote to raise their taxes just to keep their transportation system going,” she said.

Rockefeller said he is working on legislation that would give Kitsap County the option to join a regional approach.

Apart from transportation, the Legislature also has to patch a $1.2 billion leak in the state budget that has arisen since the last session, primarily due to falling revenue in the softening economy.

That will mean painful cuts, which Sheldon said would fall especially on social services.

Rockefeller agreed that the budget cuts would be unpleasant.

“There will be painful things we will have to do without and defer,” he said. “Organizations will be legitimately aggrieved. But everyone is having to do without and be leaner these days.”

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