Washington State Senate OKs gas tax hike, keeping fuel standard ‘poison pill’ intact 

Source: Nathanael Massey, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 4, 2015

State senators in Washington yesterday approved an 11-bill transportation package that includes a gas tax hike that would set an ambitious $15 billion agenda for the state over the next 16 years.

Despite bipartisan sponsorship for the package from ranking members of both parties, the package received only a handful of Democratic votes as lawmakers balked at measures that would limit future action on climate change.

At issue for many Democrats was a provision within one of the bills, S.B. 5987, which would raise revenue for the rest of the package’s actions through an incremental three-year, 11.7-cent tax increase and other fees. Added as an amendment by Republicans earlier this year, the so-called “poison pill” provision stipulates that, should Gov. Jay Inslee (D) adopt or implement a clean fuel standard during the 16 years the package is in effect, all funding for multimodal transit would be stripped away and repurposed for work on roads and highways.

Any measure that forces the state’s government to choose between climate action and funding for buses and bike paths must be a non-starter for Democrats, said Sen. Pramila Jayapal (D), speaking on the Senate floor shortly before the final vote.

“I believe that without the provisions on the fuel standard, this package would receive all 40 of the Senate’s votes today,” she said. “As it is, I think that a ‘no’ vote on the package does not mean we are going backward on transport, but moving forward toward a better bill.”

Democrats last Friday floated a bill nearly identical to S.B. 5987, except for the removal of the poison pill. It was voted down by the Republican majority.

Moments before a final vote Friday, Democrats made a last-ditch effort to stop the package by invoking a procedural hurdle erected by Republicans earlier this year.

On the first day of the 2015 legislative session, the Republican Majority Coalition Caucus enacted Senate Rule 64, requiring that any bill creating a new tax receive a supermajority vote from two-thirds of the chamber. Republicans later acknowledged that the rule was designed to head off a possible future carbon price scheme, another priority for the state’s environmentally leaning governor.

Democrats, who had originally protested the enactment of Rule 64, returned to it Friday, asking Lt. Gov. Brad Owen (D) to rule on whether the funding bill should require a two-thirds vote for passage. The move postponed a final vote until yesterday, when Owen ruled the measure didn’t apply, since there were no new taxes — only tax increases — included in the bill.

The package ultimately passed on a 27-22 vote.

While a majority of Republicans supported the package, a few remained opposed, citing the burden an increased fuel tax would place on their primarily rural constituents. The plan would bring Washington state within one-tenth of a cent of the highest fuel tax in the country. Republicans worry that a low-carbon fuel standard, like the one the governor has proposed, would raise gas prices even higher.

Sen. Steve Hobbs (D), the Senate Transportation Committee’s ranking Democrat, said that although the package might contain elements both sides disagree with, it was important to move the process forward.

“These are good bills,” he said. “They’re bills that need to be worked on, for sure, but this is a process. In the end, we will have something that’s good for the state of Washington.”

The package now moves to the House, where Democrats hold majority control.