Interstate 90, seen from an Eastgate overpass

Moments ago, the Wash­ing­ton State Sen­ate took yet anoth­er sig­nif­i­cant vote, this time con­cern­ing trans­porta­tion rev­enue. By an over­whelm­ing four-to-one mar­gin, the Sen­ate vot­ed to approve SB 5987, which would raise the gas tax and vehi­cle weight fees to pay for a long list of high­way projects, a short­er list of rail, bike, and pedes­tri­an projects, and con­struct new ferries.

SB 5987 would also give Sound Tran­sit new rev­enue author­i­ty (sub­ject to vot­er approval), allow­ing the agency to put a Sound Tran­sit 3 pack­age before urban Puget Sound vot­ers next year, with light rail expan­sion as the centerpiece.

The revised trans­porta­tion rev­enue pack­age is the result of long nego­ti­a­tions between the House, Sen­ate, and Gov­er­nor Inslee. It gar­nered the sup­port of near­ly every Demo­c­rat in the Sen­ate, as well as most of the Republicans.

The roll call was as follows:

Vot­ing Yea: Angel, Bai­ley, Baum­gart­ner, Beck­er, Bil­lig, Brown, Chase, Cleve­land, Con­way, Dammeier, Darneille, Fain, Fras­er, Frockt, Habib, Hasegawa, Hat­field, Hewitt, Hill, Hobbs, Hon­ey­ford, Jaya­pal, Keis­er, King, Kohl-Welles, Liias, Lit­zow, McAu­li­ffe, McCoy, Milos­cia, Mul­let, Nel­son, O’Ban, Par­lette, Ped­er­sen, Rivers, Schoesler, Shel­don, Warnick

Vot­ing Nay: Ben­ton, Braun, Dansel, Erick­sen, Har­grove, Pad­den, Pear­son, Ranker, Roach

Excused: Sen­a­tor Rolfes

The House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives will take up the pro­pos­al next.

In a lengthy floor speech, Sen­a­tor Prami­la Jaya­pal of Seat­tle (who led the oppo­si­tion to the pack­age craft­ed by the Sen­ate Repub­li­cans ear­li­er in the ses­sion) declared that many of the fatal flaws in Repub­li­cans’ orig­i­nal leg­is­la­tion had been removed as a result of nego­ti­a­tions, and that the final com­pro­mise bill was wor­thy of support.

Said Jaya­pal:

The trans­porta­tion fund­ing pack­age the Leg­is­la­ture passed today was a hard-fought invest­ment in infra­struc­ture that this state urgent­ly needs. It makes great strides to bring 21st cen­tu­ry tran­sit options to our state, and it invests in traf­fic reduc­tion so peo­ple can spend less time stuck in traf­fic and more time at home with their fam­i­lies. It has been a decade since our last trans­porta­tion fund­ing pack­age, and this will help ensure our state con­tin­ues to look for­ward, not back.

This mea­sure has come a long way since it was first passed in March, when its prob­lems were too many for me to be able to sup­port it. Four of the five rea­sons I vot­ed ‘no’ at that time have been resolved today.

  1. First, the $1 bil­lion sales tax shift from the oper­at­ing bud­get was removed.
  2. Sec­ond, most of the destruc­tive envi­ron­men­tal pieces were removed.
  3. Third, the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, pre­vail­ing wage and appren­tice­ship uti­liza­tion rates were upheld.
  4. And final­ly, Sound Tran­sit is grant­ed full fund­ing author­i­ty for projects like light rail and bus ser­vice expansion.

Sev­er­al great things were added to the pack­age, too, includ­ing a pro­vi­sion to encour­age devel­op­ment of afford­able hous­ing near pub­lic trans­porta­tion lines as well as grant fund­ing for sev­en years to sup­port my bill (SB 5863) that will ensure women and peo­ple of col­or get access to pre-appren­tice­ship pro­grams. This will help them to par­tic­i­pate in the 200,000 jobs that will become avail­able over the next ten years through invest­ment in trans­porta­tion infrastructure.

The final pro­vi­sion that forced me to vote ‘no’ in March is unfor­tu­nate­ly still in this pack­age — the stip­u­la­tion that takes away exec­u­tive author­i­ty to imple­ment a low [pol­lu­tion] fuel standard.

Although some com­pro­mise was made in cut­ting the time from six­teen years to eight years, this is still sim­ply too long to wait to take action on [pol­lu­tion] reduc­tion goals that are absolute­ly crit­i­cal to our next gen­er­a­tion. Sen­ate Repub­li­cans made it clear they were will­ing to kill the whole deal if this was removed – an ide­o­log­i­cal hard­line that is total­ly out of sync with what the peo­ple of Wash­ing­ton are call­ing for.

It might be up to the vot­ers to put in place this [pol­lu­tion] reduc­tion mea­sure, because they know that car­bon pol­lu­tion cre­ates cumu­la­tive dam­age, and that the longer we wait to address it the more we incur irre­versible dam­age. This was a tough pill to swallow.

I fought long and hard on the Sen­ate floor dur­ing the first ses­sion to demand that we address these very seri­ous prob­lems. I believe our ini­tial ‘no’ vote and the con­cerns my col­leagues and I raised then were absolute­ly essen­tial to cre­at­ing the lever­age our col­leagues in the House need­ed to nego­ti­ate a bet­ter pack­age. Although we did not get the poi­son pill lan­guage com­plete­ly removed, I can promise you that the fight isn’t over. Not for me and not for the voters.

Envi­ron­men­tal­ly-con­cious orga­ni­za­tions are upset that the deal would pre­clude Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee from using exec­u­tive author­i­ty to set new pol­lu­tion stan­dards, and have been call­ing for a no vote. 350Seattle released a state­ment with­in the last four hours urg­ing its sup­port­ers to con­tact leg­is­la­tors in opposition.

“The trans­porta­tion sec­tor is the lead­ing source of car­bon diox­ide in the Puget Sound and the state,” the state­ment point­ed out, going on to assert: “It will be impos­si­ble to reduce emis­sions from Wash­ing­ton if we main­tain busi­ness as usu­al for trans­porta­tion. The emis­sions from new high­ways will swamp the pos­i­tive envi­ron­men­tal effects of new tran­sit invest­ments. These bills would lock in six­teen more years of high­way expan­sion in our state.”

We at NPI agree that many of the projects the Leg­is­la­ture wants to fund are bad. Enlarg­ing high­ways is waste­ful and prob­lem­at­ic because it encour­ages peo­ple to dri­ve more, which only makes traf­fic and pol­lu­tion worse. Research we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly dis­cussed here on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate con­clu­sive­ly shows that adding lanes to grid­locked high­ways like I‑405 is utter­ly pointless.

How­ev­er, this pack­age does­n’t con­sist sole­ly of high­way expan­sion projects. It also con­tains fund­ing for new fer­ries, freight mobil­i­ty improve­ments, addi­tion­al rail infra­struc­ture, and safer right-of-ways for bicy­clists and pedes­tri­ans, plus the already men­tioned new rev­enue author­i­ty for Sound Transit.

In oth­er words, there is good mixed in with the bad. A fair and accu­rate appraisal of this pack­age sim­ply has to take that into account.

While the vot­ers have shown a dis­taste for ambi­tious trans­porta­tion pro­pos­als that chain-link the fate of high­way and tran­sit projects togeth­er, the pol­i­tics of trans­porta­tion plan­ning and fund­ing in the Leg­is­la­ture are very dif­fer­ent, espe­cial­ly with Repub­li­cans in con­trol of the Senate.

Repub­li­cans were nev­er going to agree to give Sound Tran­sit the rev­enue author­i­ty it has been seek­ing with­out get­ting some­thing in return.

It is worth not­ing that pri­or to 2015, Sen­ate Repub­li­cans were so dis­or­ga­nized that they could­n’t even put a trans­porta­tion pro­pos­al on the table because they could not agree amongst them­selves. And ear­li­er this year, it looked like they weren’t inter­est­ed in com­pro­mis­ing with House Democ­rats and Inslee to reach a deal.

But now they have.

We rec­og­nize that, in the words of Ger­many’s Otto von Bis­mar­ck, that laws can be akin to sausages. In the last sev­en­ty-two hours, we’ve watched what seemed like imper­me­able leg­isla­tive grid­lock give way to a fren­zied sausage-mak­ing fest.

Not only has agree­ment been reached on an oper­at­ing bud­get, but now we have this com­pro­mise trans­porta­tion pack­age, loaded with mer­its as well as demerits.

On bal­ance, we believe there is a case to be made for this pack­age, and so we sup­port the deci­sion of pro­gres­sive law­mak­ers like Prami­la Jaya­pal and Cyrus Habib to vote yes. We can also appre­ci­ate why Sen­a­tor Kevin Ranker, who is a true cham­pi­on for sus­tain­abil­i­ty and envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, cast a vote in opposition.

Due to the cir­cum­stances under which this leg­is­la­tion was craft­ed and vot­ed on, it will not be pos­si­ble for any of its crit­ics (whether pro­gres­sive or con­ser­v­a­tive) to force a bind­ing pub­lic vote on it — at least not this year.

There are ordi­nar­i­ly two ways to sub­ject a bill passed by the Leg­is­la­ture to a pub­lic vote at an ensu­ing gen­er­al election.

The first is the cit­i­zen ref­er­en­dum: a group of cit­i­zens (or, more like­ly, a deep-pock­et­ed cor­po­ra­tion pre­tend­ing to be a nat­ur­al per­son) can col­lect sig­na­tures equiv­a­lent to four per­cent of the num­ber of peo­ple who vot­ed in the last elec­tion for gov­er­nor to put an ordi­nary bill passed by the Leg­is­la­ture on ice until its fate can be decid­ed by the peo­ple at elec­tion time.

How­ev­er, if the Leg­is­la­ture decides that a bill is “nec­es­sary for the imme­di­ate preser­va­tion of the pub­lic peace, health or safe­ty, sup­port of the state gov­ern­ment and its exist­ing pub­lic insti­tu­tions” (quot­ing from the Con­sti­tu­tion’s Arti­cle II, Sec­tion 1b), it can attach what is called an emer­gency clause. The pres­ence of an emer­gency clause exempts a bill from being sub­ject to referendum.

SB 5987 con­tains an emer­gency clause that is applic­a­ble to near­ly all of its pro­vi­sions. Our under­stand­ing is that the oth­er bills in the pack­age also con­tain emer­gency claus­es. So that means no ref­er­en­dum is possible.

The oth­er avenue for forc­ing a pub­lic vote is the ini­tia­tive, which has occa­sion­al­ly been used to force votes on bills that had an emer­gency clause.

But the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly required dead­line to sub­mit ini­tia­tives to the peo­ple for 2015 is this Thurs­day, July 2nd. There isn’t time to get a repeal ini­tia­tive processed by then, let alone gath­er sig­na­tures equiv­a­lent to eight per­cent of the num­ber of Wash­ing­to­ni­ans who vot­ed in the last elec­tion for governor.

That means that what hap­pened ten years ago won’t be hap­pen­ing again this year. Then, as now, the Leg­is­la­ture vot­ed to raise the gas tax and vehi­cle weight fees by adopt­ing a trans­porta­tion pack­age cham­pi­oned by then-Gov­er­nor Chris Gre­goire. That pack­age was famous­ly forced onto the bal­lot by right-wing talk show hosts John Carl­son and Kir­by Wilbur using Ini­tia­tive 912, which vot­ers lat­er reject­ed.

But ten years ago, both hous­es of the Leg­is­la­ture were con­trolled by Democ­rats, and law­mak­ers got done with their work on time in the spring, leav­ing a win­dow of time avail­able to Carl­son and Wilbur to qual­i­fy an initiative.

This year, no such win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty exists, because the Leg­is­la­ture has been pro­cras­ti­nat­ing for months. The Leg­is­la­ture will adjourn its third spe­cial ses­sion with­in hours of the dead­line to sub­mit sig­na­tures for an ini­tia­tive to the peo­ple. So we won’t see a repeat of the Ini­tia­tive 912 cam­paign this year.

We feel the frus­tra­tion and unhap­pi­ness of fel­low activists who are focused on achiev­ing a clean ener­gy, low-pol­lu­tion future. Our entire world, not just our beau­ti­ful patch of it, is threat­ened by the cli­mate cri­sis, and the poi­son pill in this pack­age cer­tain­ly don’t help us get to that clean ener­gy future. Nei­ther do the unnec­es­sary and waste­ful high­way expan­sion projects.

But any­one who was expect­ing that the Leg­is­la­ture was going to adopt Gov­er­nor Inslee’s pro­pos­als to crack down on pol­lu­tion and pur­sue a clean ener­gy future was always bound to be dis­ap­point­ed. Elec­tions have consequences.

Had the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and its allies been suc­cess­ful in elect­ing a Demo­c­ra­t­ic State Sen­ate in 2014, there would have been a real oppor­tu­ni­ty for an envi­ron­men­tal­ly fruit­ful 2015 leg­isla­tive ses­sion. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, that did­n’t happen.

For­tu­nate­ly, a pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion of pro­gres­sives gave us a set of tools for bypass­ing a grid­locked Leg­is­la­ture. The ini­tia­tive is a pro­gres­sive inven­tion, and we should­n’t hes­i­tate to reg­u­lar­ly and enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly use it to give the peo­ple of Wash­ing­ton oppor­tu­ni­ties to enact pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy directions.

We ought, as a move­ment, to qual­i­fy an ini­tia­tive to the statewide bal­lot in 2016 that would impose penal­ties on pol­luters and use pro­ceeds to invest in edu­ca­tion and a clean ener­gy future. 2016 is a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion year, and the elec­torate is very like­ly to be more pro­gres­sive. There’s no good rea­son not to go for it.

Thanks to this trans­porta­tion pack­age, Sound Tran­sit will be able to go to the bal­lot next year with ST3, giv­ing Puget Sound vot­ers the oppor­tu­ni­ty to fur­ther extend Link light rail in all direc­tions. It would be fit­ting and appro­pri­ate to pair that propo­si­tion with a bal­lot mea­sure that takes aim at the harm cre­at­ed by the Leg­is­la­ture’s inac­tion on Gov­er­nor Inslee’s pol­lu­tion reduc­tion plan, as well as the poi­son pill Sen­ate Repub­li­cans stuck into this trans­porta­tion package.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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