Transit tax measure fails in House

Staff writerJune 27, 2013 

The number of green names designating “yes” votes on the House voting board ticked upward, hovered at 49 for a dramatic few seconds Wednesday afternoon — but couldn’t reach 50 and the majority needed to pass.

With that, opponents beat back more than $9 billion in new transportation funding sources, including a 101/2-cent-per-gallon gas-tax increase – a rare defeat on the House floor, where Democrats have a comfortable majority and vote counting usually keeps doomed proposals from even showing up.

Backers of road projects, bus service and ferries had taken a leap of faith, only to fall short. Six Democrats had parted ways with their party and just one Republican had bucked the party line: Puyallup Rep. Hans Zeiger, who wants state Route 167 extended to the Port of Tacoma.

Wednesday’s tally dropped to 48-to-42 after a supporter, Rep. Marko Liias of Edmonds, changed his vote so he would be eligible to call for a revote, which he later did – paving the way for more lobbying from unions, mass transit advocates and business interests that support the tax plan.

“This is a tough vote for some folks. And we didn’t know exactly where people were at,” Liias said after the vote. “We now know who’s opposed, so from the business community perspective, from the environmental community perspective, from labor’s perspective, we now know who we need to be talking to to get to 50.”

There is precedent for a revival from the dead — of transportation taxes, even.

In 2005, a 91/2-cent gas tax increase failed in the House. But a day later, the vote was reconsidered and reversed, allowing then-Gov. Chris Gregoire to sign it into law. Voters rejected an attempt to repeal it, raising the state gas tax to the current 37.5 cents.

To raise it to 48 cents, advocates will try to persuade some of the six Democrats who joined Liias in voting “no”: Brian Blake of Aberdeen, Hans Dunshee of Snohomish, Kathy Haigh of Shelton, Chris Hurst of Enumclaw, Monica Stonier of Vancouver and Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim.

They will also target a few Republicans including Rep. Linda Kochmar, a Federal Way freshman lawmaker who had wanted the plan’s South Sound projects.

Kochmar said Wednesday that Democrats didn’t agree to enough Republican amendments or enough spending reforms for the Department of Transportation. And she opposes phasing in the whole proposed gas tax increase so quickly.

“I think the whole thing needs to be reworked,” Kochmar said.

The measure includes more than $1 billion for maintaining and preserving roads and bridges and more than $1.4 billion for extending two unfinished roads, SR 167 that ends in Puyallup and state Route 509 that ends near Sea-Tac Airport.

It provides new authority to local governments to raise taxes and fees, including an extra $20 that could be levied on drivers renewing car tabs in cities such as Tacoma or Olympia. Pierce Transit would be allowed to fund buses by raising sales taxes on purchases in a special subdistrict if voters there agree.

Zeiger said he expected another vote to come Thursday morning.

“It’s up to the Dems to find the votes, because I don’t think they will see much movement on our side,” Zeiger said.

One reason for the failure was worry that supporters would be sticking their necks out for a proposal that is doomed in the GOP-dominated Senate, a perception Senate leaders encouraged.

“I’ve heard repeatedly that it is either going to be dead or have a referendum hung on it,” sending it to voters, Kochmar said.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@ @Jordan_Schrader

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