Just 18 days after its initial unveiling, Senate lawmakers have passed a $15 billion transportation package that includes an 11.7-cent increase to the state gas tax over the next three years.
That package now moves to the Democrat-controlled House where Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said during a media session on Feb. 19 that the package won’t be considered until lawmakers address education funding, which they are under order from the state Supreme Court to substantially increase.
“I feel like I can breathe a little sigh of relief, like being in the eye of the hurricane before having to take a breath and head back into the storm,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens. He and Sens. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, and Curtis King, R-Yakima announced what they described as a bi-partisan transportation package on Feb. 12 after 22 months of negotiating.
Ten of the package’s 11 bills have now passed in the Senate and are scheduled to be introduced to their respective committees in the House. The package’s revenue bill passed on a 27-23 bipartisan senate vote Monday.
The revenue bill would fund 16 years worth of transportation projects by increasing the state’s 35.7 cents-per-gallon gas tax by five cents in July, 4.2 cents in July 2016 and another 2.5 cents in July 2017. That would bring Washington's combined state and federal gas tax to 67.6 cents-per-gallon, second highest in the country behind Pennsylvania.
Along with the gas tax increase, the revenue bill would also increase car-tab fees by $15 in the program’s first year and then by an additional $8 in 2022. The classified skill examination fee for obtaining a commercial driver’s license would increase from $100 to $250.
The package would fund $8 billion in widening projects on I-405 east of Seattle, I-90 through the Snoqualmie Pass corridor and I-5 near Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Tacoma. It would also fund a new north-south I-395 corridor in Spokane and allocate $1.2 billion for completing the west side of the new Highway 520 bridge between Seattle and Bellevue.
The package also includes some funding for rural transit, vanpools, bike paths, pedestrian walkways and highway safety. However, Republicans have fought to include a provision in the revenue bill that would move all of these funds to the state highway account if Gov. Jay Inslee—or any other governor in the next 16 years—implements a low-carbon fuel standard. Committee staffers have previously said that the language could be interpreted to also include any carbon emission reduction plans.
When asked what he wants to see happen with the package as it makes its way through the House, Hobbs said he and the other Senate Democrats would like to see the carbon language removed.
“I’m sure the other side would like to keep it in,” he said. “Perhaps we can come to an agreement of some kind.”
The revenue bill cleared the Senate on March 2 with 19 Republicans and 8 Democrats voting in support. The corresponding spending bill also passed that day in a 41-to-8 vote.
The package’s eight policy bills were passed the week before on Feb. 27. While most of them received near-unanimous approval, two had the Senate split along party lines, illustrating that some aspects of the bipartisan package aren’t bipartisan at all.
SB 5990 has been a focus of controversy since the package was announced. The bill’s original language would have moved all revenue generated from sales taxes on transportation projects out of the state's general fund and into the transportation fund. Democrats and education groups opposed the bill, saying that moving money out of the general fund would only make it more difficult for the Legislature to meet its obligations for funding education.
Instead, the Senate passed the bill with an amendment from Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, that exempts all highway projects from the state sales tax until July 1, 2019. All highway improvement and preservation projects beginning after that date would also be exempt. Sales tax revenue made off of non-highway related projects would still be moved out of the general fund and into the transportation budget.
The bill passed 26-to-23. Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, was the only Democrat to vote in support and he sits with the Republican caucus.
SB 5991 also had the Senate split along party lines. It would require 20 percent of funds from the state’s environmental legacy stewardship account be given to the Department of Transportation to finance their own environmental projects. The account currently finances water and environmental health monitoring, air quality programs, storm water runoff reduction and hazardous waste management efforts, including oil spill cleanups.
SB 5991 passed 27-to-22. Hobbs and Liias were the only Democrats to vote in support. Ericksen, who is the chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, was the only Republican to oppose it.
“There are several aspects of the package that are not favorable, but we will try to negotiate them out in the House,” Hobbs said. “So I think it’s a good start. After two years we finally have something out of here.”