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Session’s End Nixes a Gas Tax, Kills a Bridge and Ties Up Other Loose Ends

Senate Transportation Co-Chair Tracey Eide moves for the 9th Order to bring the transportation revenue measure to the Senate floor. But the motion never really had a chance. The Democratic caucus had only 22 votes on the floor, and one member split to vote with the other team. The motion was defeated 26-21.

Senate Transportation Co-Chair Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, moves for the 9th Order to bring the transportation revenue measure to the Senate floor. But the motion never really had a chance. The Democratic caucus had only 22 votes on the floor, and one member, Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, voted with the other team. The motion was defeated 26-21.

UPDATE, July 2.–Although Gov. Jay Inslee did not blame the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus for the demise of the Columbia River Crossing bridge project at his post-session news conference Saturday, he said Monday he blames the Senate majority for that outcome as well.

OLYMPIA, June 30.—The Senate figured out an easy way to end this year’s argument about transportation taxes. It went home. And the big door to the Senate chamber made such a loud noise when it closed for the last time that a bridge collapsed a hundred miles away.

So ended the last big dispute of the 2013 legislative session, settled by inaction rather than action – not that it should have surprised anyone. Support for the $10 billion transportation proposal has always been tepid, among both Democrats and Republicans. And a big reason for that has been the Columbia River Crossing, which would have gotten $450 million if the bill had passed. Now a finish can be written to both.

The final day of Washington’s 2013 Legislature was a time to tie up loose ends. Lawmakers passed a skinnied-down version of a liquor-marketing bill that has provoked one of the biggest business-on-business battles of the year. It also became clear that the governor’s office has decided to snub Boeing on a water-quality issue that is sure to be a major issue for 2014.

But the death of the $3.4 billion Columbia River Crossing was by far the biggest news. It had a little to do with the Senate Majority Coalition’s decision to say no to transportation package, and a whole lot to do with Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision last month to veto funding that might otherwise have kept the project alive. In a political tactic designed to create pressure for the gas-tax increase, Inslee last month nixed $81 million in stopgap planning money for the bridge. He argued that it represented false hope: If the Legislature failed to pass the tax increase this year he said the state would lose federal funding for the project. At the time Inslee said it’s now or never.

So now it’s never.

Whether Inslee’s stand reflected reality or was just an astoundingly bad political gamble on a tax bill that already was in trouble, the Columbia River Crossing project office in Vancouver begins shutting down on Monday. Over the last eight years some $170 million has been spent planning the project.

Ends on 153rd Day

Early artist's conception of the Columbia River Crossing.

Early artist’s conception of the Columbia River Crossing.

Washington lawmakers finally called it quits Saturday after a grueling session of lawmaking that began nearly six months ago. The central drama of the session was resolved Friday when lawmakers passed a $33.6 billion operating budget, preventing a state-government shutdown that otherwise would have occurred on Monday when the 2013-15 budget period begins.

State Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, raps the gavel in the House chamber to end the session.

State Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, raps the gavel in the House chamber to end the session.

So the final floor sessions in the House and Senate were really matter of tying up loose ends. By the end of the business day Saturday they had approved every big bill that needed to pass. They passed a few small ones, too. Legislative Democrats and Inslee said they might be willing to stick around if a deal on transportation could be reached. But members of the Senate majority coalition told reporters they weren’t about to rehash a $10 billion argument that seemed to be going nowhere. Instead they say they will take the lead on transportation next year, at the same time demanding reforms in the way transportation projects are financed and managed. Said Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, “Our caucus is pledging that we are going to lead on this issue, because we think transportation is vital to the economic interest of Washington state, but if we are going to do it, let us do it in a manner that we can all believe in.”

Gavels fell at six o’clock Saturday evening, the 153rd day of the 2013 legislative session. By 7 p.m. only a dozen cars remained in the legislative parking lot. This morning it was empty. The year’s lawmaking is over, and the gang of 147 has been freed at last.

Much Democratic Thunder

Blames it on ideology: Gov. Jay Inslee.

Blames it on ideology: Gov. Jay Inslee.

For once you could say a session ended with a trifle of excitement. The decision of the Senate leadership not to allow a floor vote on the transportation measure gave Democrats the opportunity to hurl brickbats at the other team on the way out the door. Press releases from the Dems thundered about the ‘Republican refusal.’ Here’s how state Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, put it: “For months, we have heard the majority talk about jobs: their importance to our state, their importance to our economy, their importance to our recovery.  Yet at the very moment they had the chance to stand for jobs and to stand up for our economy, they chose to retreat behind the veil of their anti-tax mantra.” In one of the final motions of the session, Democrats staged a “9th order” maneuver in an attempt to take over the Senate floor and run the transportation bill.  But no members of the majority coalition went along with it and the measure failed 26-21. Senate appointee Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, who faces a Republican opponent in his first election this fall, voted not with his own party but with the 25 members of the Senate majority. The motion left Majority Caucus member Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, scratching his head. “They tried to take over the floor with 21 votes?” he asked. “Sounds like they just wanted to tell the governor they tried.”

At the governor’s traditional post-session news conference, it became clear that the Senate’s failure to bring up the transportation bill was the Democratic message of the day. Inslee offered his most stinging public criticism yet of the largely Republican Senate governing coalition. “For six months, we have heard nothing from the Senate majority coalition about transportation except to say no. They have proposed and passed no plan for transportation infrastructure for the state of Washington. Zero. And finally tonight the public has learned about their total failure to invest in our transportation system. We hear them say they will now lead on the issue. The question we need to ask Rodney Tom and the Republicans is simply this. Where have you been for the last six months? Has anyone heard of leadership from the Senate Majority Caucus? I think not.”

To his credit, the governor did not blame the Majority Coalition Caucus for killing the bridge — at the very least a shared responsibility, and one that is arguably weighted on the governor’s side. When asked about the Columbia River Crossing, a project he has advocated, the governor appeared more concerned about the failure of the Senate majority to pass a transportation package than he was about the collapse of the bridge. Inslee said he understands some members have a problem with the CRC, but he said the real reason for the defeat of the transportation package was “right-wing ideology.” He pointed out that the Senate could easily have passed the bill, deleted the bridge, and sent the matter into negotiation. “The Senate was free to pass a transportation package with whatever changes they wanted to make, including that one. They didn’t do that. They want to use this as some convenient excuse for their total inaction, and that is a very small fig leaf for a very big failure.”

Washington and Oregon governor’s offices told The Columbian in Vancouver the bi-state planning agency will be closed. On July 1, a new fiscal year begins and the Columbia River Crossing will have no authority to spend money. Termination of the bridge project also was announced in a statement from Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. He said, “without the funds from Washington and adherence to the project budget and schedule, neither state can incur the further costs of delay. Consequently, project managers have begun to close down the project.”

Not Really a Surprise

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina.

The final-day fizzle for transportation really was no shock. Though the tax package has backing from a broad coalition of business, labor, environmental and transit interests, legislative support for the $10 billion proposal has always been on the weak side. That’s partly because it involves a gas-tax increase, never a popular thing — 10.5 cents a gallon in the latest proposal. Other question marks included the bridge and the possibility of a public referendum. Democrats are firmly pro-bridge, anti-referendum, and yet it took them all session to bring the proposal to the House floor.  On the first vote last week, the proposal was shot down – something that almost never happens in the Legislature – and it was only on the second try that Democrats found a sufficient number of votes, 51, one more than the bare minimum required for passage. That vote, it might be noted, took place on the 151st day of the 153-day session.

If support was weak among House Democrats, the Senate coalition wanted nothing to do with it. As Inslee noted, the Senate could have flung a counterproposal back in the direction of the House, without the bridge and including a referendum. But members of the majority caucus said they aren’t ready to go to the bargaining table; certainly it is going to take more than a few days to come up with a plan. Exactly which reforms they want, they haven’t decided – a study of transportation cost drivers is due this summer, they note. And they say the project list forwarded by House Democrats was designed more to curry political support than to solve congestion problems; they’ll want to rethink that, too. “Let’s take the next five or six months and see what kind of a program we can develop,” Tom said. “But this will need to have strong leadership from the governor’s office.”

Tom said he looks forward to working with the governor, whatever the governor says about him. “I think what we are tasked to do by the citizens of Washington state is to be grown-ups and get the job done,” he said.

Benton Celebrates

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

It was a fine way to end the session, said state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver. Not only did he oppose the gas-tax increase on the general principle of state-government inefficiency, he was also one of the most outspoken opponents of the bridge project. The CRC has divided lawmakers from Clark County along party lines. Money is a big part of it. Heavy tolls would be required. And as part of the bi-state political dealmaking behind the design, the bridge would provide entry to Clark County for the Portland-area Tri-Met light rail system, thus requiring Vancouver residents to pick up part of the tab for system operations. Meanwhile, the low, flat bridge design, optimized for rail, coupled with the lack of liftspan, optimized for cars, means big trouble for shippers that need taller clearance.

All session long Benton looked for ways to kill the project, but he couldn’t quite get it done. The $81 million appropriation in the transportation budget that might have kept the project alive was a compromise worked out with Transportation Co-Chair Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way. It would have provided $3 million to keep the lights on at the CRC offices for the next few months, until the Coast Guard could rule on whether the low bridge design was a hazard to navigation. If the Coast Guard nixed the design, the remainder of the money could have been used to redesign the bridge. Yet what Benton couldn’t do in committee, the governor accomplished with his veto. Rather than creating pressure for the transportation package, it gave bridge opponents like Benton all the more reason to make sure the transportation package didn’t go through. And in the 25-member Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, where every vote counts, they had plenty of influence. “The governor took a gamble in hopes of increasing the pressure on the Legislature,” Benton said. “It didn’t work, but considering he had inherited the CRC less than six months ago, the responsibility for this spectacular public-policy failure belongs to the CRC project office.

 “The traffic congestion for Clark County commuters is a serious problem, but the project leaders never took enough of a ‘corridor’ approach. They cared more about light rail than marine traffic or reducing the vehicle traffic, and that inflexibility – or infatuation – is what ultimately doomed the project.”

Other Loose Ends

The vote on the state operating budget Friday night made the Saturday session anti-climactic. The only major bill on the agenda in either chamber was the state’s $3.6 billion capital construction budget. Parameters for that deal could not be established until the operating budget was approved, and weary negotiators said the final agreement was reached at 3:15 a.m. Saturday morning. A $2 billion bonding measure required for the capital budget passed both chambers without debate.

The House and Senate also passed two measures reflecting the last-ditch dealmaking that continued into the final hours. One bill gave local governments more authority to regulate off-road vehicles. Another eliminated a 17 percent tax imposed by the state Liquor Control Board that essentially made it impossible for former contract liquor stores and purchasers of the former state liquor stores to compete with distributors for the restaurant and bar trade. Costco and supermarkets want the same opportunity and in one of the session’s biggest business scraps, the state’s two big distribution companies battled them all session long. Ultimately lawmakers decided the plight of the struggling small merchants called for an immediate resolution, said state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, as many have already gone out of business. “We’ll have a bigger issue to consider next year,” he said.

Time ran out on another endgame battle, over water quality standards the state is expected to propose next year. The new standards, unattainable with current technology, are based on an estimate of fish consumption by members of the state’s Indian tribes. Boeing came to the Legislature with a proposal that would delay the standards until a rigorous study of fish-consumption patterns could be completed – essentially posing the question of whether the new water quality standards would have any impact on human health. Negotiations bogged down on a fine point of legislative nicety – the Senate insisted on a budget proviso written in such a way that it could not easily be vetoed by the governor. Lawmakers say the governor’s office balked at that idea. And in the interest of avoiding a blowup that might have derailed the budget, the Senate majority withdrew amendments to the budget that would have required the study. Despite suggestions that the issue might surface in some other form Saturday, it didn’t. Said Senate negotiator John Smith, R-Colville, “It is done for the session, but the issue is going to continue to be in our conversation, and it will be a different conversation than the one we had before.”

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