The state Senate approved a $15 billion transportation package Monday shortly after Lt. Gov. Brad Owen said he wouldn’t enforce a recent state Senate rule requiring a two-thirds majority vote on the tax provisions.
OLYMPIA — Over the objections of most of the chamber’s Democrats, the state Senate on Monday passed a $15 billion transportation packageincluding an 11.7-cent gas tax increase.
The vote came shortly after Lt. Gov. Brad Owen declared that he wouldn’t enforce the recent rule enacted by the GOP-controlled Senate requiring a two-thirds majority vote for any new taxes.
The ruling came in response to a question Friday from Democrats on whether the supermajority rule would apply to the transportation package, though Republicans said it wouldn’t.
The gas-tax bill passed 27 to 22. Lawmakers also passed a spending bill that allocates the money to specific projects.
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Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, and Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, both lauded the package as a compromise between parties that would create thousands of jobs.
“There’s packages in every part of the state,” Schoesler said during the floor debate. “Not just one or two high-profile projects.”
The proposal would fund road projects that include the west side of the 520 bridge, the North Spokane Corridor freeway, widening of Interstate 405 from Bellevue to Renton, an extension of the Interstate 90 Snoqualmie Pass East rebuild to Easton, and Highway 167 in South King and North Pierce counties.
It would pay for transit and local rail projects, bike paths and pedestrian walkways and let Sound Transit ask voters to fund potential rail-line expansions.
Many Democrats opposed to the proposal cited environmental concerns, including a provision intended to keep Gov. Jay Inslee from enacting low-carbon fuel standards as a way to cut greenhouse gases.
Other Democrats objected to a GOP-favored proposal to direct sales taxes from transportation projects toward transportation funding. They argued the money should stay in the general fund, to be used for such priorities as K-12 education.
Even as she lauded the Senate’s approval, Democratic Rep. Judy Clibborn, chair of the House Transportation Committee, called the Republican language aimed at blocking low-carbon fuel standards as “a drag (that) makes it really hard for people to vote for it.”
Inslee is exploring an executive order to require fuel producers to reduce the carbon content of fuel, a move Republicans say would increase gas prices. The GOP provision would divert money for van pools, rural transit, special-needs grants, safety, walking and bicycling programs if Inslee were to issue such an order.
Clibborn, of Mercer Island, also agreed with earlier remarks by the House Democratic leadership that approval of the package should wait until lawmakers decide how to pay for additional K-12 education spending ordered by the state Supreme Court.
But Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, explained the position in more tactical terms.
“If we let the transportation package go, I’m afraid we’re going to lose our leverage to get a good operating budget out, as well,” Hasegawa said during the floor debate.
Republicans, almost all of whom voted for the proposal, rose one by one to explain their decision to increase gas taxes and fees for transportation. Some mentioned projects that would benefit their districts.
One, Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, spoke in favor of the package even though almost all of the spending would go to other districts, saying many of her constituents are commuters.
Shortly before the vote, Owen said he wouldn’t enforce a Senate rule established by the GOP in January that would require a two-thirds majority vote for any new taxes. Democrats on Friday had asked Owen, who presides over the Senate, to decide whether the transportation package would be subject to the rule.
Owen, who said he consulted case law and heard from lawyers, told lawmakers that he believes the rule violates the state constitution.
“The president has previously stated, the Senate cannot pass a rule that violates the state constitution,” Owen told lawmakers Monday. “Perhaps that statement should be clarified to read, the Senate may adopt an unconstitutional rule, but the president will not enforce it.”