By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
OLYMPIA — The Republican-led majority in the state Senate announced Thursday it is ready to work on a plan to raise billions of dollars for transportation improvements, a decision that comes weeks after it refused to vote on a proposal passed by the House.
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the Majority Coalition Caucus wants to hold seven public meetings around the state, including one in Everett, for residents to tell lawmakers what projects they want built and how they are willing to pay for them.
They also want to know what reforms the public would suggest in how the state designs, permits and builds transportation projects. King said any final agreement must knit together revenue and reform to gain support of the coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats.
“In order to pass a transportation package of any substance there will likely be a need for additional revenue to pay for projects,” King said. “But before we go to the people asking for more money, the state needs to prove that it’s already stretching every dollar it has.”
Transportation funding was one of the most debated issues in the regular session and two special sessions this year.
House Democrats drew up a $10 billion funding package with a 10-cent increase in the gas tax and passed it at the tail end of the second extra session.
But the coalition refused to vote on the plan. Coalition members didn’t like the gas tax increase. Even more, they didn’t like that it contained hundreds of millions of dollars for a new I-5 bridge across the Columbia River into Oregon. Some members also expressed frustration at the lack of reforms of transportation policy.
Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, welcomed the coalition’s change of attitude on an issue critically important to Snohomish County, where road improvements are needed to bolster the aerospace industry.
“It took them an extra five months to realize what everybody knew in February: that we need a transportation funding package to repair our failing infrastructure and add capacity to our system,” he said.
King wrote Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson suggesting a schedule of meetings from mid-September to the end of October. They would start Sept. 18 in Tacoma with subsequent sessions in Vancouver, Seattle, Everett, Wenatchee, Spokane and the Tri-Cities. He also invited Peterson and Gov. Jay Inslee to take part.
Following the meetings, King wrote, “a final negotiated transportation revenue package and agreed upon reforms would be put into legislative form and introduced in both chambers at the first available opportunity.”
Gov. Jay Inslee has said he would call the Legislature back for a third special session if there is a package to act on before January.
He reiterated that point last week in a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, according to his spokesman, David Postman.
“We take this as a good sign,” Postman wrote in an email. “I don’t know if the governor will attend any of the meetings. But the governor will continue to lead efforts to advance investment in transportation, and he’s open to working in a bipartisan way to get that job done.”
A key to the conversation is going to be the 10 reforms outlined by King including a speedier permitting process and possible revision of requirements on prevailing wages.
Tom, one of the two Democrats in the coalition, said a vote will be taken on funding before they seek action on reforms.
He also said he expected whatever emerges will wind up on the ballot, either from lawmakers or opponents who want to repeal it. Without reforms, it may be hard to win support from the electorate, he said.
“We in the Majority Coalition Caucus are trying to move this forward and gather information so we can come with a package that has the buy-in of the public,” he said.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.