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Gas tax stalls in Olympia

The House rejects the hard-fought transportation bill, but another vote is expected today on the last day of the legislative session.

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By Jerry Cornfield / Herald Writer
OLYMPIA - The state House of Representatives Saturday rejected a gas tax hike and massive fix of the state's transportation system, dealing the Democratic leadership a stinging defeat in the final hours of the legislative session.
Legislators rejected the $8.5 billion package on a 53-45 vote that brought a dramatic end to days of closed-door negotiations that Democratic leaders thought had secured a bipartisan majority for passage.
"It was a shock that it didn't get passed," said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam.
Eight Republicans voted for the plan, but 18 Democrats opposed it. Kessler was one, and did so deliberately to preserve the parliamentary option of forcing another vote. That vote would have to occur today, since the session ends at midnight.
Rep. Al O'Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace, voted against the plan as well. He said he did so at the request of the party leadership. "We wanted to see how many votes we would get from the Republicans. We were looking for 18. We got eight," he said.
Though he expects a second vote today, he said he "regrets not having taken a vote to pass it. I thought it was a done deal."
And it could be too late. Kessler said several Republicans who voted for the plan are reportedly reconsidering.
The Senate passed its transportation plan Wednesday, raising the expectation that the Legislature would pass a comprehensive improvement plan for roads, transit, ferries and bridges.
The Senate and House proposals both increase the gas tax by a total of 9.5 cents over the next four years. One cent of the hike would go to cities and counties.
The proposals also both pledge a major chunk of money to King County projects, including $2 billion for a new Alaskan Way Viaduct, $500 million for replacing the Highway 520 floating bridge, and $972 million for clearing up choke points on I-405. Repairs also were budgeted for nearly 200 bridges, ferry support was continued and bus and train investments were continued.
Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, knew it would be a difficult fight in the House.
"It's not an easy vote," she said, referring to those fearful of repercussions from raising the gas tax. "I think it's going to be real hard to go home without anything. If the viaduct goes down, we'll have to fix it, and nothing else gets done."
Rep. Ed Murray, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, spent the last days revamping the project list in hopes of securing more votes.
For example, he boosted funding to improve Highway 9 to $123 million, more than double what was originally proposed. The amount is about one-fourth of what's needed to widen the route from Clearview north to Highway 92 in Lake Stevens, plus improve intersections and build a new bridge across the Snohomish River.
But Murray did not do enough for Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, who voted against the plan.
The plan steered millions into the 38th District for an I-5 interchange at 41st Street, but McCoy said that only took care of the southern portion of his district. He requested money for a new overpass at 116th Street and improvements to Highway 529. Without them, he said he could not back the plan.
Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, also voted against the package, partly because too few of the gas tax dollars would be returned to his district.
More important, he said, the transportation budget needs to unite lawmakers across party lines, as does the capital construction budget that he wrote. "These roads are bipartisan. They cover the entire state," he said.
Before Saturday's vote, Dunshee termed his position a "hell, no." After the vote, he said, "We're going to take a deep breath and come back tomorrow."
Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360- 352-8623 or
Last day of session
Today is the final day of the 2005 Legislature. Before going home, lawmakers hope to approve a $26 billion budget for the state's operations and a $3 billion capital construction budget.

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