Start negotiations with transportation

And so it goes.

Democrats in the state House and Republicans in the Senate encountered their latest impasse Wednesday when neither could agree to a starting point for budget negotiations.

Republicans, who have proposed operating and capital budgets that impose no new taxes except for a gas tax increase, want the House to vote on its tax package, which includes the addition of a capital gains tax on some investment income. The Senate’s chief budget author, Sen. Andy Hill, told the Associated Press that he offered to start negotiations by considering a smaller starting point on revenue but withdrew the offer when House Democrats balked at that. House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan countered that Democrats would rather include the tax package in negotiations and don’t think a floor vote is necessary before talks have concluded.

Meanwhile, the final gavel is less that two weeks away and the Legislature must wrap up a daunting list of work that includes agreements on education funding that satisfies a state Supreme Court mandate, a 16-year transportation plan and more.

So, while the impasse over the tax package stews, perhaps legislators could begin their talks where they have at least a little more agreement: specifically transportation.

That’s not to pretend that there aren’t differences to work out in that budget, but both transportation proposals are in general agreement on spending $15 billion over 16 years and, more importantly, on the gas tax increase — an incremental 11.7-cent increase between this summer and mid-2017 — that will help pay for it.

The interests of Snohomish County may actually be better served by the Senate proposal, which outlines about $570 million in projects in the county. The House’s first draft only outlined about $350 million, but members of the county’s delegation, specifically Democratic Reps. Mike Sells of Everett, Lillian Ortiz-Self of Mukilteo and Luis Moscoso of Mountlake Terrace were successful with amendments that would add another $152 million to the county project list.

There appear to be three main areas of disagreement between House and Senate on transportation:

Senate Republicans want sales tax revenue from transportation projects to be diverted from the general fund back to transportation projects. House Democrats don’t want to further limit badly needed revenue for the general fund.

The Senate budget would allow Sound Transit to go to voters for $12 billion for its third phase of light-rail expansion into Everett, Tacoma and Bellevue. The House proposal would authorize Sound Transit to seek the full $15 billion the transit agency says is necessary to make ST3 worth the investment.

And Senate Republicans inserted a “poison pill” in their budget that jeopardizes public transit projects if Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Ecology proceed with plans to institute a lower-carbon fuel standard.

None of the above are insurmountable. The House, for example, could give on the sales tax reform in exchange for the Senate conceding on the Sound Transit vote and removing the threat against transit funding.

House and Senate should find a deal on the transportation budget and use the momentum from those talks to finish work on the rest of the budget.

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