Although he's willing to discuss a proposed supplemental 2014 budget, Gov. Jay Inslee doesn't have much to say about what likely will be the most contentious — and the most important — item on lawmakers' agenda in the coming year: Transportation.
That's not a knock on Inslee; it's an acknowledgement of political reality. He can't talk about a transportation package because he doesn't have a transportation package to talk about. Inslee has proposed adding about $200 million in spending to the $33.6 billion biennial budget passed this year by lawmakers, but despite his best efforts and despite plenty of discussion, no transportation plan has made it beyond the point of speculation and finger-pointing.
Recently, after the governor unveiled his supplemental budget plan, a joint statement from bipartisan House and Senate negotiators, along with Inslee, addressed the status of transportation negotiations: "We agree that transportation infrastructure is important to our state, and we remain committed to finding a solution in the regular legislative session that works for everyone. The next step in this process will be to continue this dialogue in the legislative process."
In other words, after a dozen or so negotiating sessions beginning in late November, lawmakers have not made much progress in a drive toward a transportation package. And considering where they started, from Southwest Washington's perspective, that's OK by us.
Leaders of the Senate's Majority Coalition Caucus, spearheaded by Curtis King, R-Yakima, and Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, proposed increasing the gas tax an additional 11.5 cents per gallon in an effort to raise $12.3 billion for transportation projects throughout the state. Each gallon of gas purchased in Washington currently includes a state tax of 37.5 cents, and a federal tax of 18.4 cents. The initial plan for the $12.3 billion transportation package included a return of $41 million for projects in Clark County — 0.34 percent to a county that makes up 7 percent of the state's population. That makes us leery of whatever plan will eventually come up for a vote in the Legislature.
"There's every reason to believe that this package is going to help every part of the state," Inslee said during an interview with The Columbian. "Clark County might be in the Portland television market, but I can assure you it's in Washington's plans."
We'll see how far those plans progress during what is scheduled to be a short 60-day legislative session that begins Jan. 13. The state Senate earlier this year failed to vote on a transportation package that included money for the Columbia River Crossing, perhaps scuttling the project. Inslee then decided to move on, rather than let bickering over the CRC hold back projects throughout the state, and he urged lawmakers to provide him with a transportation package that ignores what is likely the most important project in the state. This is short-sighted, both on the part of Inslee and on the part of strident lawmakers who failed to move forward on the CRC.
The Legislature would be remiss to come up with an 11.5-cent gas tax that provides money for projects all over the state but a pittance for Southwest Washington; but state senators such as Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Ann Rivers, R-La Center, would be remiss to hold up other much-needed projects. Something will have to give sooner or later, and the fact that it is an election year for all state representatives and 24 of the 49 senators will compound the stakes. Eventually, one way or another, the governor is going to have something to talk about.