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Published: Tuesday, July 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Transportation is focal point heading toward 2014 session

OLYMPIA -- Washington's weary lawmakers may be steered into another special session this fall if House and Senate leaders can bridge their differences on a multi-billion-dollar transportation funding plan.
The governor isn't ruling out the option. And a leader of the Senate's ruling coalition suggested it might be possible in November when lawmakers will be in town for scheduled meetings.
But Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, both know significant hurdles stand in the way of approving what is now a nearly $10 billion proposal anchored by a 10.5-cent increase in the gas tax.
This plan squeezed through the Democrat-controlled House in the final days of the second special session. It died in the Senate where the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus -- of which Tom is a member -- didn't vote on it.
Inslee considers it critically important for the state's economic growth and would not discard the idea of bringing lawmakers back if there is something to act on.
"We are going to have to do some deep thinking about what the next step forward is," Inslee said after lawmakers adjourned. "We will be regrouping ... and then we'll make those decisions."
Senate majority members opposed inclusion of funding for a new Columbia River bridge and wanted reforms added to speed up completion projects. Those concerns will need to be addressed if the two chambers are to achieve a compromise, Tom said.
Lawmakers are due in Olympia on Nov. 21 and 22 for their annual Committee Days. If an agreement is reached, they could deal with it then, he said.
"We do need to move forward on a transportation package. It's important that we have one," said Tom, who voted for transportation packages with gas tax hikes in 2003 and 2005.
The House and Senate dueled for 153 days before passing a two-year budget and getting out of town. With that done, transportation is now emerging as a focal point for parties in both chambers heading toward the 2014 session.
Members of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus and Inslee may launch separate tours of the state to build support for their respective proposals.
"We are going to craft a transportation solutions package that all Washingtonians can support," said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, on a recording released by his caucus last week.
House Democrats expressed frustration at the defeat of the bill but vowed to keep driving toward a politically viable plan.
"I remain hopeful that we can reach an agreement in the coming months that ensures Washington remains a great place to live, work and do business," said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, the chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee and the chief architect of the package. "We can't afford to wait."
Meanwhile, a coalition of cities, counties, business groups, labor unions and environmental organizations are holding out hope a solution can be found sooner than later.
"I think it's a big enough deal that if they can reach a deal they need to reconvene as soon as possible and pass it," said King County Executive Dow Constantine. "I don't see any point calling a special session if they are going to have the same stalemate they've had the last few months."
For King County, the most important part of the package may not be the money that would be spent on highways, bridges and ferries in the next 12 years. It would be the power the County Council could receive to raise new revenues for operating King County Metro Transit.
Without an infusion of money, bus service will be drastically reduced next year, Constantine warned.
"(Lawmakers) need to know that this is urgent," he said. "Their failure to act is going to have real consequences for people and the economy."
The transportation package passed by the House gave bus operators in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties with an option of asking voters to increase their local sales tax to generate money for service.
Community Transit is in a less urgent situation because it already pared service, including on Sundays, in 2010 and 2012 and is not planning any more cuts, said spokesman Martin Munguia.
It receives the majority of its funding through a 0.9 percent sales tax -- 9 cents on a $10 purchase -- levied within the boundaries of the district. Under the House bill, the district could raise the sales tax by another three-tenths of a penny, with voter approval. That could bring in around $21 million a year which is about the amount of the reductions, he said.
"We are not in a do-or-die situation," he said. "Had the House transportation package passed this year it would have helped us out immensely. We still would have to make the case to our voters but it's still a better position that we are in now."
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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