State Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, apparently has a different dictionary than we do. As Senate leaders last week floated the idea of raising the state’s gas tax another 111/2 cents per gallon, King declared, “We think it’s fair, we think it’s balanced.”Our definition of fair and balanced is quite a bit different from the senator’s. Because, looking from a Southwest Washington perspective, this plan is neither.
The proposal would raise $12.3 billion for transportation projects in the state and, as usual, little of that would be earmarked for Clark County. Among the 66 itemized projects on the list, four of them are in Clark County, and those would bring in a total of $41.4 million. That works out to 0.34 percent of the revenue that would be raised through the additional gas tax. Considering that Clark County is the fifth most populous in the state, and that it is home to just over 7 percent of the state’s residents, and that it includes the region’s primary transportation corridor, this plan seems more inequitable and incongruous than fair and balanced.
The argument, of course, is that what is good for the state also is good for Clark County. That’s true — to a point. But the fact is that in 2003, the Legislature enacted a “nickel” funding package that raised the gas tax 5 cents a gallon, and more than half of that revenue went to congestion-relief projects in the Puget Sound area. Then, in 2005, the Legislature added a 91/2-cent tax to be phased in over four years. The bulk of expenditures from that increase: $2 billion for the Alaskan Way viaduct project in Seattle; $551 million for the I-90 corridor east of Seattle; $500 million for the Highway 520 bridge linking Seattle with Bellevue; and $152 million for freeway improvements in the Spokane area.
If what is good for the state is good for Clark County, then we must be living amid stardust and unicorns by now. Which brings up this question: When do lawmakers start thinking that what is good for Clark County is good for the remainder of the state?
That is the crux of this issue. With the looming specter of the Columbia River Crossing and a replacement Interstate 5 bridge, it would be absurd for lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee to proceed on a major transportation bill without including funding for the project. The Senate chose to not vote on such funding earlier this year, which means that local Sens. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Ann Rivers, R-La Center, have some explaining to do. By championing the fight against the CRC, they may have rejected a major gas-tax increase that included the project in favor of a major gas-tax increase that includes nearly nothing for Clark County. Regardless of how one feels about the CRC, it’s difficult to argue that local taxpayers are well-served by such a trade-off.
All of that, of course, remains to be seen. With Senate leadership apparently on board for a $12.3 billion transportation bill, the governor might call a special session of the Legislature for next week. If that happens, we expect Benton and Rivers to be just as adamant in their opposition to this bill as they were in fighting against the CRC funding. And we expect Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, to join them in doing what best serves her constituents.
Clark County, like most counties outside the Puget Sound region, provides more revenue through gas taxes than it can hope to recoup in the way of projects. That makes us a donor county, and that’s a fact of life we can somewhat accept. But we’ve already given till it hurts.