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Revised transportation package clears Washington State Senate on bipartisan vote

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.


2 Trackbacks

  1. […] to the efforts of innumerable partners, the State Legislature has passed a transportation package with the full $15bn funding authority for Sound Transit […]

  2. […] know, they can’t go live on some globe that isn’t warming. So when I read things like Environmentally-concious organizations are upset that the deal would preclude Governor Jay Inslee fr… I have to wonder how much of a deal they think they’re […]