When it comes to Washington roads, just like for everything else run by state government this year, new taxes are unlikely, but fees are fair game.
Among the 92 fees being considered for increases under a plan by legislative Democrats to raise $125 million over the next two years for ferries and other fiscally troubled parts of the state’s transportation web:
A 60 percent increase in driver’s license renewal, rising to $40.
A new $20 charge for a driver’s first Washington license plates, after years of new drivers paying nothing until getting replacement plates seven years later.
A more than doubling of the pair of fees paid when a car changes owners.
As they started a push for their proposal in a House committee Monday, supporters stressed that some of the fees haven’t changed in years, unlike the prices of many goods. That combined cost of application and filing fees for a car title last increased in 2002, to $9. License renewals were last boosted in 1999, to $25.
“Businesses have not thought twice about adjusting their fees to align with their costs since 1999,” Doug Levy, a lobbyist for Puyallup and other cities that back higher fees, told lawmakers at Monday’s public hearing.
But it was businesses that complained the loudest at the hearing. Truckers, auto dealers, wreckers and others would owe more to the government under the plan, and lobbyists for those industries said the higher fees would be a burden.
Some business interests cautioned that lawmakers’ short-term strategy of raising fees could get in the way of their long-term one: a ballot measure to raise gas taxes and other transportation revenues.
“It could hurt an effort for a larger statewide plan in the future,” said Amber Carter, a lobbyist for the Association of Washington Business.
Political realities are likely to keep gas taxes from going up this year, but the Legislature’s transportation chairwomen, Rep. Judy Clibborn of Mercer Island and Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island, hope to ask voters for tax increases in 2012. In the meantime, the two Democrats authored the proposal for higher fees.
Gas tax collections have fallen short of projections as people drive less and do it in more fuel-efficient cars. Past gas-tax increases have helped push transportation spending to an expected nearly $9 billion over the next two years, but as those projects finish up and the tax revenue remains tied up in paying off the debt on them, funding for future projects is in doubt.
The ferry system lost money after the repeal of the state’s motor vehicle excise tax and has needed repeated transfers of money from other transportation accounts.
Ferries would receive the largest share of revenue from the proposed fees. They would pay to build a new boat and to avoid or shrink some cuts – reduced sailings and higher fares – that are under consideration in the Legislature.
The State Patrol, highways, local governments and freight rail would share the funding. Buses and pedestrian programs would receive a piece too, although environmentalists protested Monday that it’s not enough.
Washington would jump ahead of neighboring states when it comes to the cost of a driver’s license. Renewing a license for five years would cost the same as an eight-year renewal in Oregon. The higher $55 renewal in Idaho also lasts eight years.
Unlike tax increases that require a supermajority of the Legislature, fee increases need only a simple majority vote. Democrats can pass them on their own – if they unite on a plan. Some moderate Democrats said they are open to raising road-related fees if the right ones are chosen.
Republicans said their minority party is unlikely to support the fee increases.
“We understand the need. We’re concerned about the timing,” said GOP Sen. Curtis King of Yakima, citing the effects of the economic downturn on people and businesses.
By contrast, most Senate Republicans on Monday joined most Democrats in backing a different fee increase: a 25-cent surcharge the state Transportation Commission would be allowed to impose on ferry fares. King said the surcharge has support from the ferry riders who would pay.
Combined with a proposed exemption of ferry fuel from the state sales tax, Haugen said the surcharge would help pay for a new 144-car ferry. Those changes and a series of proposed cost reductions for the ferry system now go to the House for consideration.
One thing Republicans like King and supporters of the fee proposal can agree on: The state will eventually need a bigger, broader increase in transportation revenues than this fee hike.
It’s a step in the right direction, said Duke Schaub, lobbyist for Associated General Contractors of Washington. But it won’t have a drastic effect on falling revenues.
“It really is sort of a Band-Aid approach,” Schaub said.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826