Legislature runs out of gas

By David Ammons

Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Washington’s beleaguered, gridlocked Legislature on Wednesday abandoned a seven-month effort to pass the largest transportation fix in state history, adjourning their session with a barrage of blame that got unusually partisan and personal.

An uncommonly scrappy Gov. Gary Locke told a Seattle radio audience that House Republicans were "screwing" the region’s traffic-plagued commuters. GOP leaders shot back that Locke had broken his promise to put the tax package before voters.

The session came to an abrupt halt — one day shy of tying the all-time record for longest session — after leaders finally agreed on something: There would be no agreement on a 10-year fix for some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion.

"We’ll have to regroup," a bitterly disappointed Locke said.

A minisession may be called later this year to deal solely with a locally financed solution to the traffic mess in central Puget Sound, he said.

But no one held out hope of reviving the statewide package and the 9-cent gas-tax increase that had been the lightning rod.

Hope for a quick boost to several major Snohomish County projects has been dashed by the session’s end.

Plans to widen I-5, revamp overloaded intersections, build a new transit center in Mukilteo and put commuter trains on the tracks from Everett to Seattle were all considered likely candidates for funding.

The biggest price tag — $120 million — hangs on plans to extend a carpool lane on I-5 from the south end of Everett to where the road meets U.S. 2, a major bottleneck.

"I think the worst nightmare on I-5 right now is in Everett," said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee and a participant in the funding talks.

Negotiators didn’t get far enough to write a list of which projects would get which dollars. That makes it difficult to say how much Snohomish County would have gotten and how much of that funding would have come from statewide tax increases or regional taxes.

The Democratic governor and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate laid the blame on House Republicans, saying they had failed to negotiate in good faith and constantly changed their demands to scuttle the package. They alone bear responsibility for the Legislature’s failure, the Democrats said.

"I find it completely unacceptable that the House Republican leadership was constantly undermining their own negotiators," Locke said. "As a result, the people of Washington are going to have to suffice with continued traffic congestion."

Later he said: "I’m very upset. I’m very upset. We’re talking about the future of the state of Washington."

To Republicans, he added: "Don’t sacrifice the people of the state of Washington. Don’t play around with the future of our kids and grandkids."

In a radio interview with KIRO Newsradio in Seattle, the governor was even more pointed, saying House Co-Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee and his caucus were "screwing" the public with their hard line stance against raising taxes.

"I think they’re just interested in politics. They’re screwing the state. They’re putting at risk jobs, thousands of jobs. They’re putting at risk the quality of life and saying they don’t care that people are stuck in traffic."

Ballard, in a telephone hookup with reporters, said he was stunned by the "vicious attack."

Republicans were ready to deal right up until the end, and were willing to help pass a major tax package if it went to the ballot, he said.

"If this is about blocking taxes, I’ll eat your old hat," Ballard said.

Ballard said Locke and other Democrats walked away from their earlier promises to place any tax package on the statewide ballot.

A politician’s word ought to mean something, he said.

Ballard said the Democrats’ attack on his caucus was "the opening volley" of the fall elections, when the outcome of two state House races will determine partisan makeup of the chamber, which has been deadlocked 49-49 for three sessions now.

Although House Co-Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Senate Majority Leader Sid Snyder, D-Long Beach, were more circumspect, they nodded their agreement with Locke’s tough words.

Both the House and the Senate adjourned without fanfare just after noon with only a few legislators present. Their only relief was that the session was at long last over, after 163 days over four sessions, and that they hadn’t tied or broken the old 164-day record, set in 1977.

Lawmakers pledged to continue negotiating on a Puget Sound regional fix. Locke said he would call a fifth session if a deal is struck.

"It’s too big a problem to just scoot aside," Snyder said.

The proposed package would have raised the gasoline tax about 9 cents per gallon, along with increases in trucking fees and a sales-tax surcharge on new and used vehicles. That would have paid for about $10 billion in improvements over the next 10 years.

But House Republicans balked at the tax increases and negotiations broke down over the weekend. The GOP made an eleventh-hour proposal for a two-step, 6-cent increase in the gas tax, plus a 10 percent increase in the trucking fees and a half-percent surtax on purchase of new and used cars.

Democrats called it too little, too late — a "design for disaster," Snyder said. They also declined the offer to put a transportation package on the fall ballot, fearing it would be defeated.

Locke and Democrats made a distinction between Senate Republicans, who were ready to provide their share of tax votes, and the House GOP. Nonetheless, Sen. Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, a senior GOP negotiator, said he was distressed by the "really sharp edge" to the Democrats’ comments.

Without the billions of dollars in new transportation money, the state will be unable to attack some of its worst problems, including I-405, the Evergreen Point floating bridge on Highway 520, the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct and the bottleneck on I-5 through downtown Seattle.

Along with the transportation package, the Legislature’s adjournment doomed two other proposals: Locke’s proposed aid package for farmers and farm workers, and a bill that would have allowed construction to begin on the stalled second Tacoma Narrows bridge.

Herald writer Warren Cornwall contributed to this report.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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