Candidates all over map on raising gas tax for state Route 167 extension

Supporters of extending state Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma demanded a gas tax increase to fund the highway project and others like it at a forum they hosted Tuesday for candidates for the Legislature.

Then they asked what they could do to help get it done.

Urban Democrats supportive of their cause, like Rep. Jake Fey of Tacoma and Shari Song of Federal Way, told them to keep up pressure on the Legislature.

Rural Republicans who have so far opposed gas-tax proposals, like Rep. J.T. Wilcox of Yelm and Sen. Pam Roach of Sumner, suggested making their case to the public, who might ultimately get the final say.

“The people that we represent don’t support it yet. You can help fix that,” Wilcox said.

A public campaign would be expensive. Already, the Tacoma Pierce County Chamber-led coalition for SR 167 has spent $247,000 over a year and a half on a grassroots lobbying campaign, much of it taxpayer money from local governments. And that doesn’t come close to counting everyone lobbying on behalf of the project.

Tim Thompson, whose consulting firm gets most of that money, said a public campaign to Pierce and south King county voters could cost $1.5 million and would be beyond the group’s means.

At the forum, a question from a labor-union member of the coalition put candidates on the spot.

Would they support a gas tax package or not?

The 11 Democrats stood up; the 11 Republicans and a Libertarian remained seated.

It was the way the question was phrased, said Rep. Hans Zeiger of Puyallup, the sole Republican who voted for a gas-tax package when it came up for a vote on the floor of the House in 2013. Even he stayed in his seat.

“I’m not going to say any old gas tax would work for me,” Zeiger said afterward.

Many Republicans, like Sen. Steve O’Ban of Tacoma, Rep. Cathy Dahlquist of Enumclaw, Melanie Stambaugh of Puyallup, Rep. Linda Kochmar of Federal Way and Drew Stokesbary of Auburn, said they could support the right package with the right reforms.

Reforms they suggest included streamlining of permitting, dedicating sales tax proceeds from transportation projects for transportation purposes, and more accountability for errors by the Department of Transportation. Some also demanded that Gov. Jay Inslee declare he wouldn’t set a requirement for greener motor fuel, which they say will increase gas prices.

Some Democrats called those excuses.

It’s “really easy to vote no. You can come up with reforms. You can come up with all kinds of things,” said Rep. Dawn Morrell, D-Puyallup.

She said she took the “tough vote” to back a package in 2013 and Pierce County lawmakers could have forced it out if they had stuck together.

O’Ban and Fey disagreed on whether the House-passed package that Fey helped shape had enough in it for the South Sound.

“I think Pierce County did very well,” said Fey, D-Tacoma, “and I’m actually embarrassed that we missed our chance to get the money needed for those projects.”

Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, blamed the Republicans who control the Senate for stalling a package. Roach blamed Senate Democrats.

Jinkins called on interest groups that make up the SR 167 business-and-labor coalition not to support any campaigns that attack candidates for voting for the gas tax.

“If this is your No. 1 priority,” Jinkins said, “you should act like it’s your No. 1 priority.”