Lt. Gov. Brad Owen ruled Monday that the state Senate’s rule requiring a two-thirds supermajority vote to raise taxes is unconstitutional.
Owen made the ruling following a challenge from Democrats on Friday over a proposal to increase the state’s gas tax by 11.5 cents to pay for a transportation package that would fund projects around the state.
The ruling paved the way for the Senate to continue debating the transportation revenue package, which had been put on hold over the weekend while Owen made his decision.
The $15 billion dollar transportion package pays for six megaprojects, including the North Spokane Corridor in Spokane and the State Route 520 Bridge, as well as dozens of regional projects and traffic congestion relief.
Sen. Mark Mullet urged members to pass the bill as he described the “parking lot” he sees each day on the state’s freeways during his commute from Issaquah to Olympia. “The reality is this thing is not going to fix itself, and it’s up to the people in this room,” he said.
Other supporters say it is a fair to tax those who use the roads the most. “If you drive 10,000 miles a year, you pay a lot less in gas taxes than if you drive a lot of miles,” said Sen. Tim Sheldon.
But Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, said it will hurt drivers in rural districts. “It might not seem like a lot, but an extra 12 cents a gallon adds up quite a bit for folks who have to drive greater distances and fill up their rigs more often,” he said.
Several Democrats spoke in against the overall transportation package because it comes with conditions they oppose. “There are some factors in this underlying legislation which are uncomfortable. Rolling back environmental permitting. That’s tied to this legislation,” said Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson.
But Republicans say those conditions are necessary to gain public trust and expedite projects. Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Whatcom County, said the permitting change “is not just about expanding [Interstate] 405, it’s not just about [State Route] 167…it’s also about being able to have a permitting system in place that allows us to build light rail more efficiently and effectively.”
Sen. Annette Cleveland of Vancouver said she was voting against the bill because the transportation package does not include money for the Columbia River Crossing bridge between Portland, Oregon and Washington. “Vancouver was told repeatedly throughout the course of the last decade, ‘Wait your turn there are other megaprojects in the state that take priority.’ Vancouver waited our turn, and I submit to you that our turn has now come,” she said.
The chamber passed Senate Bill 5987 with a vote of 27 to 22. It now heads to the House for its consideration.
House Democratic Majority Leader Pat Sullivan released a statement saying the “bad greatly outweighs the good” in the transportation package. “We in the House will do our best to fix the transportation package sent over by Senate Republicans, but before that we will need to see substantial movement on their part to address our paramount duty of educating our children and fairly balancing our operating budget,” he said.
Watch the debate below: