GOP readies transportation plan with no climate-change initiatives

The wait is nearly over.

Senate Republicans, after two years of avoidance, are putting the final touches on a multibillion-dollar transportation package and could make it public as early as Thursday.

It’s what Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has politely, pointedly and persistently demanded of GOP lawmakers. His public pressure — remember how he called them out in last year’s State of the State address — coupled with the private lobbying of business leaders, certainly motivated Republicans to reach this point this early in the session.

But the governor is likely to be sparing in his praise of their handiwork. This package — crafted in part through negotiations with Democrats — delivers a bipartisan rejection of his signature climate-change initiatives.

Its major funding source would be a gas tax hike of somewhere between 11.5 cents and 14 cents, not revenue from the cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions he’s pushed.

And Republicans apparently are ready to pump more dollars into public transit in exchange for Democrats agreeing to delay — maybe even halt — action on a new carbon fuel standard that Inslee’s administration has begun writing. The deal also calls for GOP senators to allow Sound Transit to ask voters to fund expansions into Everett and Tacoma.

Inslee’s not going to wave the white flag on his initiatives. Instead, he can focus on making sure the counterproposal that will be drawn up in the Democrat-controlled House keeps one or both of them alive in some fashion.

The governor’s next move may become clearer when he talks to reporters Thursday.

Meanwhile, don’t look for House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, to applaud the accomplishment of Senate Republicans too loudly either.

By this time next week, that bundle of transportation joy could be outside his door and he’ll be fielding questions about what he wants to do and when he wants to do it.

Some around the Capitol think Chopp should press for swift action by the House, rapidly consummate a deal with the Senate and get it signed by the governor. This would give everyone a chance to collectively relish an accomplishment on what’s been a divisive issue.

Acting soon, they argue, also would give Democrats a little breathing space before they start seriously talking about taxes they want to raise to pay for education and government services. That’s going to be a difficult conversation that will last until the end of session in late April and maybe beyond. Leaving a decision on a gas tax hike until then can only make it harder.

On the other hand, Chopp may find more value in waiting and using the transportation package as leverage for securing votes for those taxes.

There are those who contend there will be lawmakers in both parties willing to pledge support for a new or higher tax for the budget if their pet transportation project is funded. But, they contend, acting too soon on transportation could allow those lawmakers to change their minds later.

Back in the Senate, after two years of being the ones watched, Republicans surely can’t wait to be the ones watching.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com and on Twitter at @dospueblos

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