OLYMPIA — A $10 billion transportation revenue package that included a 10.5-cent increase in the gas tax was voted down by the state House on Wednesday in a rare floor failure by the Democrat-controlled chamber.
The measure needed at least 50 votes, but the vote fell just short at 48-42.
Democrats hold a 55-seat majority in the House, but several Democrats crossed party lines to vote against the measure and one Republican voted in favor of the funding package. Seven lawmakers were not present and did not vote on the measure.
Marko Liias of Mukilteo, who spoke in favor of the measure on the floor, only changed his vote to a no once he realized supporters wouldn’t hit the 50-vote threshold. Members of the prevailing side in a vote maintain the option of asking the chamber to reconsider it at a later time.
“We’re close,” Liias said. “We’re going to keep working on it. We need one vote.”
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said it’s possible the revenue package would have passed if Rep. Dean Takko of Longview had been available. Takko is out of the country.
“It’s easier if you have your full contingent,” he said.
Republicans who spoke against the measure during debate said that while there were several good projects in the package, they couldn’t sign off on the financing of it, which in addition to the gas tax increase, included some increases on vehicle weight fees, as well as local tax bond options. They expressed concern that not enough was being done to address the costs of the projects, and that taxpayers would bear the brunt of the Legislature’s actions.
“The taxpayers have had enough,” said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama. “The taxpayers can’t bear any more.”
Under the proposal rejected Wednesday, the state gas tax would have increased by 6 cents per gallon on Aug. 1, with the remainder of the increase taking effect July 1, 2014.
The package, which had already faced likely resistance in the Senate, included $3.2 billion for several state road projects, including state Route 167, Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass and a replacement bridge over the Columbia River into Oregon. It also included more than $1 billion for maintenance of highways and bridges.
The effort to replace the bridge connecting Portland with Vancouver, Wash., has been a key sticking point in the predominantly Republican Senate, where several members are opposed to the Columbia River Crossing proposal in its current form. Opponents say the proposed bridge is too low and should not include light rail transit, and they are concerned about costs.
The overall package has been a priority for Gov. Jay Inslee, whose staff watched the vote from the House wings. Inslee spokesman David Postman said that they would keep working the issue, and he said he hoped that it will come up for a vote again during this current special session.
Senate Transportation Committee co-Chair Curtis King, R-Yakima, said even if the package ultimately passes the House, it will be a difficult sell in the Senate, which is controlled by a coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats. He said that in addition to his caucus’s strong position against the Columbia River Crossing, there also wasn’t enough money put toward maintenance and preservation of current roads and bridges.
He also said any increase of the gas tax should be sent to voters for their approval by referendum, an amendment that House Republicans also wanted attached to the House bill.
With lawmakers scrambling to get a state budget done before the budget cycle ends Sunday, King said it’s unlikely they can work out all of those details before then.
“You don’t wait for the last few days of session to try and bring forth a package of this importance and say, ‘Oh, you’ve got to get it done,’” he said.
In a statement issued after the vote, House Transportation Chair Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said she was “saddened and disappointed” by the outcome.
“Our infrastructure is crumbling, our public transportation is faltering, and our economy is struggling - but gridlock remains as much a reality in the legislature as it does on our roads,” she wrote.