Politics & Government

Fund education before transportation, state House Democrat says

Even if the state Senate passes a gas-tax increase in short order – no sure thing – leaders of the House are in no hurry.

A bipartisan group of senators unveiled a transportation funding package last week that includes raising the gas tax by 11.7 cents.

A Senate committee advanced the proposed taxes Thursday evening over objections from half of the panel’s minority Democrats to conditions Republicans tied to the plan.

In the House, many Democrats agree with that sentiment but also don’t see why they should raise taxes for highways at all while it’s still uncertain if Republicans will agree to raise taxes for schools. Call their perspective “kids before concrete.”

The state Supreme Court has held the Legislature in contempt of court over failure to fund schools in the McCleary case. House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said Thursday that takes precedence over a highway bill.

“I think we have to focus on our McCleary obligation before we get to transportation,” Sullivan, a Covington Democrat and the top lieutenant to House Speaker Frank Chopp, told reporters.

Sullivan said House budget writers will put forward their proposal for education and other general spending in mid- to late March. The House could wait until then to turn to transportation – or longer, since the final budget usually isn’t passed until the final minutes of lawmakers’ 105-day session or in any special session that becomes necessary.

“I don’t see how I can go back to my constituents,” Sullivan said, “and say, we raised your gas tax, we raised your motor vehicle excise tax in order to meet our infrastructure needs, but when it comes to our school kids...” lawmakers weren’t willing to raise taxes.

Lawmakers need to invest a minimum of $1.3 billion in education this session, Sullivan said. They also must add money for teacher pay now being covered by local property taxes, he said.

Republicans contend before proposing tax increases lawmakers should look for more savings in the roughly $37 billion two-year budget. Without changes, existing legal obligations would eat up the roughly $3 billion increase in revenue from the last budget.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed paying for both education and transportation in part with money from a cap-and-trade plan to raise money from large emitters of greenhouse gases. Senate negotiators rejected that idea as a transportation funding source but Inslee said Thursday he is “getting good support for that in the House of Representatives.”