On second try, Washington House approves potential funding for CRC

Proposal would raise enough to pay state's $450 million share; bill still faces challenges in Senate

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

Updated: June 27, 2013, 8:43 PM

 
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After House Democrats failed to pass part of a $10 billion transportation package Wednesday, they tried again and succeeded Thursday. The package would raise enough money to pay Washington’s $450 million contribution toward the Columbia River Crossing project.

The revenue part of the package would increase gas taxes 10.5 cents per gallon, phased in over two years, as well as increase some vehicle fees. It passed with a vote of 51-41, with five House members excused from voting. The spending part of the package pays for many of the state’s transportation needs, including Washington’s share of the CRC. That bill passed with a vote of 52-40, with five members excused from voting.

Both bills now head to the Senate, which is controlled by conservative lawmakers less likely to embrace a tax increase.

On Wednesday, Democrats said the transportation revenue bill failed by just one vote. They used a procedural technique that allowed them to vote again on Thursday. The transportation revenue bill succeeded Thursday after two Democrats — Reps. Brian Blake of Aberdeen and Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim — switched their votes from no to yes.

State Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, voted against both transportation package bills on Thursday. She said the package conflicts with the “no tax increases” promise she made to voters in the 17th District.

CRC planners say that Washington and Oregon need to commit this year to paying their shares of the project. Earlier this year, Oregon legislators approved their $450 million share, but that commitment is contingent on Washington legislators following suit this year.

If Washington lawmakers put the CRC decision off until next year, it would unravel the project’s financing plan and set the CRC back at least a decade, project supporters say. The CRC would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River, extend Portland’s light rail system into Vancouver and replace nearby freeway interchanges.

The Legislature has already passed a transportation budget to finance previously approved projects. The transportation package that passed in the House on Thursday would raise money to cover even more of the state’s transportation needs. It puts roughly $3.3 billion into a few big-ticket projects, more than $500 million into public transportation, and more than $1 billion into maintaining the state’s highways and bridges.

Under the proposal, the state gas tax would increase by 6 cents per gallon on Aug. 1, with the remainder of the increase taking effect July 1, 2014.

The transportation package could have a tougher time passing in the state Senate. Leaders in the Senate majority caucus, which is made up of 23 Republicans and two conservative Democrats, seemed doubtful Thursday the package could succeed in that chamber.

“I don’t think it has a chance here,” said Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, who is a member of the coalition. “People are very concerned about the costs of these projects.”

CRC supporter Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said he still couldn’t predict how the bill would do in the Senate. He said some senators might be weighing the political ramifications of raising taxes against the ramifications of failing to support transportation improvements in their districts.

“Won’t it be interesting to watch?” he said.

State Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and an author of the package, acknowledged there will be many major sticking points, and said “nothing was on or off the table.”

“We know that there will be things that neither side will like, but no one thing should be able to take the package down,” she said.

The Washington State Republican Party issued a statement Thursday advising senators to stop the transportation package.

“The Democrats in the state House showed no interest in a variety of reform bills introduced by Republicans, and until they do, no interest in higher taxes should be shown by the Senate,” state GOP spokesman Kirby Wilbur said. “We would ask (Democrats) to wait until 2014, then place their proposal on the general election ballot in November of that year so that the people can have their say.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com