Lawmakers may take new stab at roads budget

Democrats in the state House of Representatives triggered quite a political storm this year with their plan to raise billions of dollars for transportation by, among other means, increasing the gas tax by a dime a gallon.

When the clouds of conflict subsided after a regular session and two extra ones, those Democrats looked weary and had nothing to show for the effort.

Now, the climate may actually be improving. Diminishing verbal showers are forecast and there’s a slim chance an agreement could arrive in a special session this fall or in the 2014 session.

What’s changed the atmosphere is that members of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, who withstood relentless pressure through 153 days by Democratic lawmakers, Gov. Jay Inslee and pro-transportation package forces, intend to craft their own transportation funding proposal.

And soon.

Members of the Republican-dominated caucus are embarking on a statewide tour to find out what the state’s citizenry thinks is needed in transportation and is willing to do and pay to get it done.

Dates and locations for the meetings could be released as early as today.

“We want to find out by region where people are at,” said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, a co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday. “We want to get a feel from the public if this is the time to do it.”

If what they hear can be translated quickly into a plan, negotiations with Democrats could commence this fall.

Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, one of two Democrats in the coalition caucus, has said if an agreement is within reach when lawmakers are in Olympia for committee meetings Nov. 21, it could get acted on then in a quick special session.

“It’s possible. Personally, I think that is a Hail Mary comment,” King said. “There are a lot of things that have to come together before that comes together.”

One of those ‘things’ is certain to be reform of some state transportation policies.

House and Senate Republicans are convinced Washington overdesigns, over regulates and overpays for just about everything it builds and paves. Democrats aren’t convinced it’s quite as bad as their GOP friends make it sound but many of them see room for reform.

On Tuesday, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers began work on a study of those factors which drive up the cost of projects and what if anything can be done about them.

Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, leader of the House Transportation Committee and architect of her party’s failed transportation plan, said the analysis will “inform us about the things we think we know” and maybe dispel a few myths along the way.

Results aren’t due until December. But enough should be known about reforms before then for King — who is on the panel — to write into the GOP proposal.

“I think most people realize we do need additional revenues. We will have to have a list of reforms,” King said.

He and Clibborn met for an hour Tuesday after which she sounded confident the GOP will put forth a proposal before the year is out.

“My gut tells me they will,” she said. “They talk about it in a positive way. They are saying they want to do something. They realize it’s important to the state.”

King made clear his caucus isn’t trying to claim ownership of the issue.

“We just want to show we’re not the obstacles,” he said.

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

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