Locke, Legislature must be willing to act on taxes

In Olympia, the legislators are calling Gov. Gary Locke’s proposals for transportation taxes "helpful." The legislators must need even more help than anyone realized.

Or perhaps they simply crave Locke’s acquiescence in their most pernicious habit: pretending to act while expecting the public to do the real work.

The governor has finally offered an intelligent transportation-taxes plan. Better late than never. The most knowledgeable legislators, like Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen and Rep. Ruth Fisher, praise Locke for putting something on the table. With the Legislature absurdly stalled four months after starting work, that is, after all, helpful.

Locke’s plan calls for a 7 cent hike in the gas tax over two steps, a 2 percent surtax on vehicle purchases and a 50 percent surcharge on trucking fees. It also outlines a series of projects that would be completed with the new money. And it would allow newly created regional boards to go to local voters with requests for taxes, fees or tolls to finance projects in the Puget Sound region and elsewhere.

Locke offered a reasonable one-third mix of transit-related proposals. At the same time, he stood up to the transit junkies who don’t want improvements to HOV lanes to count against that one-third share. As Haugen quickly pointed out in the governor’s defense, there won’t be much transit movement if we don’t have the infrastructure for buses and ferries in place. Plus, Locke’s plan is particularly well tailored to Snohomish County with its acceptance of the state’s full responsibility for completing I-5 HOV lanes here.

But the governor slipped into what could be considered enabling behavior toward state lawmakers’ habitual lack of courage. He was sadly hesitant about what taxes the Legislature should enact itself. At one point, he said that the Legislature should leave any major action, such as a sales tax or vehicle tax, to the voters.

Dumping a gas tax decision on the public is simply a retreat from responsibility — and the state’s history. The tax has been used continually as a major source of transportation funding. It is protected by the state constitution from being diverted to any other purpose. It is a user fee, roughly reflecting actual road usage. And it hasn’t gone up a penny since 1991 — part of the reason we are in such a mess. Yet much of the Legislature lacks the will to raise the tax by itself rather than through a vote of the people.

The bankruptcy of such spinelessness immediately becomes apparent when you consider the reaction Locke’s plan received. Tim Eyman practically jumped out of his chair in readiness for a fight. (He probably couldn’t believe lawmakers will spare him a signature gathering effort and offer him a free shot at doing more damage to the state’s transportation infrastructure — and its economy.) Some commuters said they’d reject a gas tax because — they think — the money is mixed into the state’s general fund and put to other purposes.

There’s no reason for the average voter to know budget details. But lawmakers are paid to know — and to act on what they know.

Locke is right to warn legislators that he will keep them in session until they produce a transportation package. Unfortunately, he will probably have to carry out his threat. But he also should force them — and himself — to take responsibility for passing at least the gas tax part of his financial package. There’s no reason to wait for another election to begin gearing up for transportation improvements.

Announcing his package, the governor said, "Now it’s time to act." Indeed. It’s advice he and the Legislature should heed.

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