Legislature approves $8.5 billion transportation tax package, which will survive subsequent ballot challenge, on April 24, 2005.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 2/08/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7637
On April 24, 2005, hours before the State Legislature adjourns for the year, a bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives approves a 16-year, $8.5 billion transportation revenue package, the largest infrastructure investment in state history. The program is funded by a 9.5 cent increase in the state gasoline tax, also the largest in history. The 54 to 43 vote in favor of the tax increase comes one day after the House rejected the same bill by a 53-to-45-vote margin. Tax opponents quickly collect nearly twice the number of signatures necessary to place an initiative to repeal the tax increase on the November ballot but, to the surprise of many, voters decisively reject I-912, keeping the gas tax and transportation spending in place.

The massive transportation spending plan was a key goal of the powerful business lobby. Environmental and labor leaders and Democratic Governor Christine Gregoire also supported it. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and other backers argued that significant spending increases were necessary to replace or rehabilitate unsafe structures, including the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, reduce congestion and choke points, and improve ferries and mass transit.

$8.5 Billion Compromise

Although Democrats held narrow majorities in both legislative chambers, some Democrats opposed the measure and others were unwilling vote in favor of a major tax increase unless it also had significant support from Republicans. The Democrats who headed the two transportation committees, Senator Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island in the Senate and Representative Ed Murray of Seattle in the House, worked closely with Republican colleagues to reach agreement on a tax plan.

After the two chambers passed different versions, a conference committee worked out the final compromise, which called for $8.5 billion in transportation revenue over 16 years. The bulk of the funds, $5.5 billion, would come from a 9.5 increase in the gasoline tax to be phased in over four years -- three cents in July 2005 (raising the state gas tax from 28 to 31 cents per gallon), another three cents in 2006, two cents in 2007, and 1.5 cents in 2008. Increases in weight fees on cars and light trucks (including SUVs), motor-home fees and tolls would supply the remaining revenue.

The bill earmarked $2 billion for Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct, $500 million for the Evergreen Point Bridge (which spans Lake Washington), and nearly another $500 million for other "at-risk structures." Almost $3 billion was devoted to "choke points and congestion." The remainder would be spent on safety investments, multi-modal transportation improvements, fixing environmental problems, and other projects.

Last Minute Maneuvers

A bipartisan majority in the Senate passed the final package by a 26 to 22 vote on April 20, 2004. However, on April 23, the agreement nearly fell apart when the House voted 53 to 45 to reject the gas-tax plan. Each party blamed the other. Democrats insisted that the politically risky vote needed to be bipartisan, while Republicans pointed out that Democrats, with a 12-vote majority in the chamber, had the votes to pass the bill by themselves.

Governor Gregoire, business lobbyists, and legislative leaders succeeded in keeping negotiations going, and on Sunday, April 24, the last day of the legislative session, the House again took up the measure. Democratic leaders had promised that more Democrats would support the bill, and after six additional Democrats voted yes, three additional Republicans followed suit, giving the transportation bill a 54-to-43-vote victory.

Governor Gregoire signed the transportation measure into law on May 9, but two months later gas-tax opponents stunned the political establishment by delivering 420,518 petition signatures to place Initiative 912, which would have repealed the gas-tax increase (but not the other revenue measures) on the November ballot. The signatures, nearly twice those required, were collected in just 32 days using only volunteer signature gatherers (unlike most successful contemporary petition drives, which have depended on paid solicitors).

Initiative 912

The I-912 campaign was heavily promoted by conservative KVI talk radio hosts John Carlson, a former unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor, and Kirby Wilbur. The DJs' active role stirred controversy and a lawsuit. A superior court judge ruled that Carlson and Wilbur were running the initiative campaign and that their on-air support constituted advertising that KVI was required to report as an in-kind political contribution.

Countering the talk radio support for I-912, the No on 912 campaign raised $2.8 million (some nine times what the Yes campaign spent) from Boeing, Microsoft, the Washington Chamber of Commerce, realtors, other businesses, and labor and environmental groups. Nevertheless, as the campaign began, even many gas-tax supporters expected the initiative to pass, as had other tax-cutting ballot initiatives.

On Election Day, November 8, 2005, however, voters solidly rejected I-912 by 54.6 percent to 45.4 percent. Many observers attributed the turnaround to natural causes. The massive destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast two months before the vote highlighted the potential dangers of not maintaining and improving a vulnerable infrastructure. Several rockslides that temporarily closed portions of I-90, including a fatal one, re-emphasized the point.

Even conservative critics like Carlson acknowledged the vote as a win for Governor Gregoire, who had campaigned vigorously against I-912. Representative Murray said the victory showed that if legislators "do the courageous thing, voters will support you" (Garber).

Sources: Walt Crowley, Kit Oldham & the HistoryLink Staff, Moving Washington Timeline: The First Century of the Washington State Department of Transportation, 1905-2005 (Seattle: Washington State Department of Transportation and HistoryLink, 2005), 118-19; "2005 Transportation Tax Package," WSDOT website accessed February 5, 2006 (http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/Funding/2005); Chris McGann, "Lawmakers OK Bump in Gas Tax of 9.5 Cents," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 25, 2005 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/); McGann, "Election 2005: Ruling on Anti-gas-tax Radio Talk Upheld," Ibid., October 27, 2005; Neil Modie, "420,518 Sign On to Repeal New Gas Tax," Ibid., July 9, 2005; David Ammons, "A Look Back At Some Winners and Losers in the 2005 Election," Ibid., November 14, 2005; Andrew Garber and Ralph Thomas, "Effort to Raise Gas Tax Running Out of Energy," The Seattle Times, April 24, 2005 (http://archives.seattletimes.nwsource.com); Garber, "King, Snohomish County Voters Block Tax Repeal," Ibid., November 9, 2005; Garber and Susan Gilmore, "Gas Tax Stays, But Don't Expect Big Road Projects to Get Going Soon," Ibid., November 10, 2005.

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