OLYMPIA — With the pending loss of two key lawmakers, the focus of state transportation policy and the fate of a multibillion-dollar roads package are far less clear than a few weeks ago.
Voters ousted Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, the powerful chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee who’s figured prominently in the writing of budgets and passage of two gas tax hikes in the last decade.
Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, also lost his seat. He’s become a respected voice in decision-making the last three years as the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee.
As their caucuses prepare to name replacements, their colleagues and those involved in transportation matters are bracing for a bumpy start in the 2013 session until those successors get up to speed on the issues.
“There’s going to be a lot of missing history because of all their knowledge,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee. “To have these leaders disappear right now makes me feel a little isolated.”
Duke Schaub, a lobbyist for the Associated General Contractors, called Haugen “a very strong leader” and praised Armstrong for helping find bipartisan support for raising revenue. Without them, he said, it will be a different tone in the chambers, though it’s too soon to know exactly how.
“I think this makes a tremendous amount of difference. It changes the dynamics pretty dramatically,” he said.
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said he thinks it will be for the better.
“The departure of Sen. Haugen provides the most opportunity for progress because she’s been the biggest barrier to new solutions for solving the transportation problems,” said Ericksen, a transportation committee member. “Honestly, she has blocked every innovation I’ve tried to bring forward.”
Haugen’s exit could prove costly for Snohomish and Island counties. She’s used her position as chairwoman to steer billions of dollars into the counties for repairing and widening highways, constructing ferries and funding transit services.
Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, who beat Haugen in the Nov. 6 election, will arrive with no seniority and in the minority party. It’s not known if she will be appointed to the transportation committee, where she could influence spending of road dollars.
“It’s going to be a great loss for Snohomish County,” Schaub said. “Even as nice as person as I think Barbara Bailey is, she’s going to be a freshman.”
But it might turn out all right.
Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, is in a spirited battle with Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, for the chairmanship of the committee. Both serve on the panel, though Eide is vice-chair right now.
Hobbs is a centrist Democrat and founder of the Roadkill Caucus, which teamed with Republicans to pass government reform bills the last two legislative sessions. He said working across party lines is a critical attribute for the committee’s next leader because transportation is a bipartisan concern.
In the House, Republicans didn’t anticipate Armstrong’s defeat.
“How do we fill those shoes? That’s something we’ve begun working through and over the course of the next couple weeks will try to figure it out,” said Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, who is the caucus chairman and member of the transportation panel.
Meanwhile, the big transportation debate shaping up in 2013 will be on a package of measures to raise money for fixing roads, finishing major projects and easing congestion on the most heavily traveled corridors.
For months, business, labor and environmental organizations have been discussing elements of the package separately and together.
The evolution in leadership won’t derail efforts but could make success more elusive. Haugen and Armstrong have been central figures in the conversation and counted on to secure votes in their respective caucuses.
“It raises the difficulty level. It will be a larger challenge,” Hobbs said.
Schaub sounded pessimistic.
“We’ve worked all summer long with leadership of the transportation committees on moving forward with a possible transportation investment package. Now all of that is sort of up in limbo,” he said. “I think it is less likely.”
Clibborn said she’s optimistic. Months ago, she and Haugen agreed that the senator would work on the 2013-15 budget while she focused on the revenue package.
“There’s a lot of momentum. There’s a lot of groundwork that’s been laid,” she said. “With so many things on the plate of the new governor and with so many issues important to other lawmakers, there will be a lot of clamoring for attention to them. Still, I think we can do it.”
She said her intention is for lawmakers to pass the package rather than place it on the ballot.
“That’s my goal,” she said. “People want us to do the job. I will use everything I learned from Sen. Haugen and Rep. Armstrong to get it into a position where it can pass.”