Wash. State Transportation Bill Negotiations Approaching Groundhog Day Status

Monday was another day, another negotiation, same outcome: no deal on a Washington state transportation investment bill.

Senators and Representatives met Monday, with no resolution. Apparently there was a counteroffer from the House Democrats, and the Republican-led Senate wants some days to consider it.

Here’s the challenge in a nutshell: the two sides are having to negotiate philosophy, not numbers. It’d be easier if the two sides were just millions of dollars apart on this program or that project.

Instead, the disagreements are philosophical: the state’s role in funding transit, using about $750 million in general funds on transportation OR education, and supporting or opposing using a small portion of toxic waste site cleanup funds to treat polluted water runoff from highways. See below for more details.

At this point it’s hard to see a deal coming together in time for a special legislative session next week to pass the bill.  A more likely possibility is a January 6 special session, but even that seems like a very long shot.

All bets are off if a bill isn’t passed before the regular session begins on January 13. That’s because the Legislature has to start over. The various pieces of the package – the labor, environmental and transportation sections all have to go through their committees of jurisdiction.  That increases exponentially the difficulty in keeping the compromises intact, and getting the pieces out of committee.

Here is more detail on the outstanding issues:

  • Sales tax on the transportation projects in the proposed bill. Currently, the sales tax (on materials used in projects) revenue is transferred to the general fund. Eliminating that transfer provides about $750 million more for transportation projects, and stretches the gas tax revenue. Many Democratic Members oppose the change, noting it reduces funding for education, housing and other programs they value. Part of the hangup, allegedly, is House Members want to see tighter language limited the provision to projects in the bill.
  • Use of environmental funds (Model Toxic Control Act) currently used to clean up toxic waste sites. The Senate bill calls for using some of the funds to treat polluted water runoff from highway projects. Republicans support that, while Democrats feel strongly about protecting those funds for toxic site cleanups, and using gas tax revenue for the stormwater projects.
  • Funding for transit and multimodal (that is, bike-ped) transportation. The House bill has significantly more funding and is supported by Democrats.  The Senate bill has less for transit; significantly the Republican Co-Chair has stated he doesn’t believe bike-ped facilities are the state’s responsibility to fund.
  • Prevailing wage: moving the project threshold for when prevailing wage rules kick in from $2 million to $5 million.
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