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News / Northwest

Senate starts moving transportation bills

Measure calling for incremental gas tax increase put on hold

The Columbian
Published: February 28, 2015, 12:00am

OLYMPIA — The Senate started moving some pieces of a state transportation package off the chamber floor Friday, including a measure that would exempt all state highway projects from the state sales tax and would redirect sales tax money from non-highway transportation projects away from the state general fund.

However, an effort to bring an incremental gas tax increase to the floor was put on hold after Democrats questioned whether it would require a two-thirds vote of the Senate before it could advance to the chamber floor for a final vote under a new Senate rule that requires higher thresholds for bills on new taxes.

The chamber passed the sales tax measure on a 26-23 vote. That bill, which originally would have redirected sales tax money from all transportation projects to a transportation fund instead of the state’s general fund, was amended on the floor over the objections of Democrats. It was among eight bills that the Republican majority said must pass before considering the revenue portion of a $15 billion revenue package that includes an incremental gas tax increase of 11.7 cents over the next three years.

Lawmakers spent most of the day passing those measures, many of them with strong bipartisan support, ranging from environmental permitting to adding “congestion relief and improved freight mobility” to existing state goals.

“It’s a fair package,” Sen. Curtis King, a Republican from Yakima who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said after the floor debate had ended for the day. “There are good projects that are needed all around this state.”

The Senate is expected to return to the gas tax issue on Monday, when Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, who is the presiding officer in the Senate, rules on whether the tax would fall under the Senate rule as a new tax, something that King said is not the case because it doesn’t create a new tax, just builds upon an existing one.

Under the 16-year plan, the gas tax would increase in three stages: a 5-cent increase would take effect this summer, a 4.2-cent increase would follow next year, and then a final 2.5-cent increase would take effect the following year.

The Senate proposal includes more than $8 billion for road projects that include the North-South Freeway in Spokane and I-90 on Snoqualmie Pass, and puts money toward transit and local rail projects, as well as bike paths and pedestrian walkways. It also would allow Sound Transit to ask voters to fund potential expansions of its rail line.

Many Democrats argued on the floor about concerns about the sales tax exemptions and diversions in light of a court-ordered requirement to put additional money toward the state’s education system.

Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said that by moving that money “into concrete instead of into children and families, we are making a very grave error.”

On Wednesday, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan reiterated earlier statements that the House wasn’t going to pass a transportation package until those education spending obligations are met.

“When you say that we can pass revenue for transportation but we can’t pass revenue for K-12 education, I think that’s unfair to our students,” he said.

After the floor debate Friday, Sen. Steve Hobbs, a Democrat from Lake Stevens who voted for all of the reform bills except the sales tax measure, said he would vote in support of the gas tax bill once it makes it to the floor.

“I still believe this is a bipartisan package,” he said.

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AP writer Derrick Nunnally contributed to this report.

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