It’s increasingly unlikely state lawmakers will move forward with a multi-billion dollar transportation tax package before the regular session ends on March 13.
Negotiators say they’re still stuck on many of the same issues that have bogged down talks for more than a year. Both sides accuse each other playing politics — always an odd accusation coming from politicians — and suggest the opposing party is afraid of taking a tax vote in an election year.
The GOP-led caucus in the Senate released a revised transportation package over the weekend that would spend more than $12 billion over the next 12 years on highway preservation and a host of projects that include improvements to Interstate 5, I-405 and Highway 395 (the North Spokane Corridor).
The proposal, among other actions, would boost the state gasoline tax by 11.5 cents per gallon and increase various weight fees to raise money.
It also would change how the state uses sales tax revenue generated by spending on transportation. Currently that money goes into the state general fund. The GOP-led majority in the Senate wants the money to pay for transportation projects instead. They argue it could boost spending on highway projects by $720 million.
That remains the biggest sticking point in negotiations. House and Senate Democrats want that money to remain in the general fund to pay for education and other state spending.
“The package they’ve introduced is far afield from where we would be on sales tax revenue. They know that,” said Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island.
Nelson and House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, also said they want the Senate majority to prove most of its caucus supports the GOP legislation by signing on. That step is needed before negotiations can get serious, they said.
“If Democrats are going to take a heavy lift on a gas tax (vote), we want to know the majority is going to do that as well,” Nelson said.
Sen. Curtis King, co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said Democrats are using that as an excuse. “They don’t want to take a vote on it,” he said.
King, R-Yakima, noted that when the Legislature increased the state gas tax in 2003 and in 2005, the measures had limited numbers of signatures. Senate Bill 6103, which bumped the gas tax by 9.5 cents in 2005, was sponsored by only two legislators, but passed the Legislature and was signed into law.