The Senate Freedom Caucus unveiled their transportation-funding proposal this week, a response to different proposals put forward by Democrats as well as the lead Republican on the Senate Transportation Committee.
The Freedom Caucus proposal calls for a shift in how the state pays for transportation projects by relying on revenue from the state’s sales tax on motor vehicles, rather than revenue from the state’s gas tax.
By contrast, Sen. Curtis King’s (R – Yakima) $10 billion, eight year proposal would raise the state’s gas tax by 3 cents, raise the bicycle parts and sales tax by 2%, and add a 20-cent surcharge for transit and light rail riders.
Braun said that he disagrees with utilizing the revenue sources that King includes, though he approves of other elements of the proposal.
Senator King has proposed another alternative with some other sources of funding that I don’t agree with, and I’ve been clear with him and the public that I don’t agree with it, but he’s also done some things that are really valuable. He’s talked about not just projects but maintenance. Maintenance issues for our transportation system around the state are critical and I think Senator King more than just about anybody has been focused on that.”
According to Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-Auburn), the Freedom Caucus proposal is designed to provide a funding source for transportation that is inflation-linked. “That way, you don’t have to keep raising the gas tax every other day in order to keep up with that,” said Fortunato.
Policymakers on both sides of the aisle expect gas tax revenue to decline in the future. One Democratic proposal to backfill that revenue hole is a mileage-based tax for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
Rather than a radical divergence from the approach of Senate Republicans more broadly, Braun says the Freedom Caucus proposal closely mirrors the transportation funding scheme included in the 2021-2023 Senate Republican Operating Budget proposal.
The Freedom Caucus is looking at new and I think better ways to fund our transportation system long term. In the Senate Republican budget which we rolled out a couple weeks ago, we did exactly the same thing, we moved sales tax on motor vehicles to the transportation account and provided $24 billion in that proposal … over the next 16 years. Not a new idea and I appreciate them advocating for it.”
When asked whether diverting motor vehicles sales tax revenue would draw money from general fund away from education, Fortunato said that due to constitutional requirements imposed by the 2012 McCleary decision and revenue from a 2017 state property tax adjustment, education is “already taken care of.”
The general fund is the state’s principal fund, supporting a wide range of services.
Braun says using motor vehicles sales tax revenue to fund transportation makes the most sense. “You go to buy a car or parts for your car, new or used, the sales tax you pay goes to operate and fund the roads and bridges that you use that vehicle on.”
Proponents of the approach say recent economic trends bode well for the Freedom Caucus plan. According to a February state revenue update, Washington car and truck sales surged in January to their highest level in more than two years.
There is no fiscal note for the Freedom Caucus proposal, as it did not receive a hearing this session.
Legislative Democrats have put forward proposals that call for significant investment.
Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D – Seattle), proposed a $14.3 billion, 12-year plan that would levy fees on carbon, vehicle emissions, and luxury yachts to invest $1.9 billion in infrastructure maintenance and $2.5 billion in clean fuel and just transitions.
House Transportation Chair Jake Fey (D – Tacoma) introduced a $27 billion, 16-year transportation package that includes 18-cent gas tax increase and a $15-per-ton carbon fee to pay for a wide range of investments.
There is bipartisan consensus to repairs to road culverts blocking salmon migration, which Washington is under a federal court order to do.
Freedom Caucus members say their proposal is in line with public opinion.
One of the focuses of the Freedom Caucus is to provide solutions supported by the people of Washington. We’re not concerned about offering solutions that the Democrats in Olympia might agree to and trying to water down solutions to get there. We’re curious about what the people of Washington State would actually support,” said Sen. Doug Ericksen (R – Ferndale).
When asked whether he agreed that the broader public was in favor of the Freedom Caucus approach, Braun said it was too early to tell.
I don’t think they can know and I certainly don’t know where all the public is. I don’t think the average person in the public really has had time to know about this proposal or think deeply about it. I do think if you ask the average member of the public, do they like a gas tax or do they want a gas tax that goes up by 18 or 50 cents, I think their opinions will be unequivocally “no.”
The four-member caucus formed this session to advocate for core conservative principles. “The Freedom Caucus will tackle big-picture issues that often cannot be encompassed by broader political caucuses that must represent a wide variety of views,” said Ericksen.
Braun says that the priorities of the group don’t diverge much from the rest of the caucus.
They are a subgroup within our caucus. I’ve been supportive of them. They’ve treated me and the rest of the caucus very respectfully. We want to do the exact same. When you look at the thing they’re focused on, they’re not that much different from where the caucus is. So, good for them.”
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