Gas tax anger fuels initiative

OLYMPIA – Sultan City Councilman Jim Flower signed the initiative petition to repeal the new gas tax. Then he set out to gather signatures from others.

It wasn’t hard.

Whenever he pulled out a petition for Initiative 912 – from the streets of Sultan to a diner in Eastern Washington – people lined up to join up.

“If this gets on the ballot, it’s a slam dunk,” he said.

I-912 supporters: www.nonewgastax.com

* I-912 opponents: www.keepwashington rolling.org

He helped tally 800 of the 420,518 signatures filed last week with the Secretary of State. That should be enough to qualify the measure for the November ballot.

If it passes, it will erase the 9.5-cent gas tax increase approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Christine Gregoire. The first 3 cents of the increase took effect July 1. The initiative would not halt the law’s imposition of new vehicle weight fees.

The tax is the funding linchpin of an $8.5 billion plan to repair bridges, widen roads, add offramps and pay part of the cost of replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct and building a new Highway 520 bridge across Lake Washington.

Of the total, $486 million is earmarked for projects in Snohomish and Island counties.

Proponents, including labor unions and some business groups, argue this is a long-term investment that will create jobs through construction, sustain companies reliant on freight traffic and save lives of drivers in urban and rural communities.

Safety is why Flower signed the petition. There is “not one dime” for improving U.S. 2, where fatal accidents occur too regularly, he said. “They completely ignored our needs,” he said.

U.S. 2 needs attention but there is not enough money to pay for everything now, said Rep. Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds and Rep. Brian Sullivan, D-Mukilteo who voted for the measure.

“We know we have $50 billion in backlog. We can’t fix it all at once,” Chase said. “Eight billion, that’s a lot of fixing.”

Sullivan serves on the House Transportation Committee. He said this package drew support from both parties: “It is not just about Sultan. It is about all of Washington.”

Gas tax foes disagree. They contend the spending plan is too Seattle-centric with a majority of dollars earmarked for the viaduct, Highway 520 and I-405. They are skeptical that projects can be finished and gridlock reduced with this plan.

“Nothing in this bill guarantees projects on the list will get built at all,” said Brett Bader of Seattle, a veteran Republican consultant hired to manage the campaign. “Nothing in this bill will relieve traffic congestion.”

Lily Eng, spokeswoman for Keep Washington Rolling, a coalition of gas-tax backers, estimated 270 projects will be completed with the money. “Proponents of the initiative have done a very good job of getting people agitated.”

Opponents are also angry with lawmakers who they say acted arrogantly by attaching a clause to the transportation bill pre-empting any challenge through referendum.

“We didn’t think this tax was done in a good way. It was an end run around the people,” said Timothy Goddard of Lynnwood, a member of the Republican Roundtable and contributor to the political Web page called soundpolitics.com.

And fueling gas-tax foes further is a residual frustration with the outcome of the governor’s race.

Goddard contended that this was a case of a Democratic-controlled Legislature driving through a tax hike while a Democrat governor held power. Had Republican Dino Rossi been in office, he argued, no increase would have occurred.

“This initiative sends a message to Olympia. Though the election challenge didn’t work, the people still have a voice,” he said.

Rep. Chase called that attitude “short-sighted” and said the intent is ensuring that people and products can be moved in a safe and efficient transportation system.

“It has nothing to do with payback,” she said. “It has to do with what kind of a society are we creating and perpetuating on our watch. We need to step up to the plate and pay for the projects.”

In early 2002, the Legislature approved a nine-cent gas tax increase spread over two years. Legislators passed it by a greater margin than their action this year. In November, voters repealed it overwhelmingly through referendum, a ballot measure that canceled out the law.

Tax opponents anticipate the same result with Initiative 912.

“This is not just a game over. This is a reset,” Goddard said. “Once it passes we’ll have a chance to go back and remind the Legislature that the people have a voice, and we can begin to find something that is acceptable to more of us.”

Sullivan wondered what might be the difference. “I really don’t know what Plan B will be,” he said.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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