They’re reforms, not “so-called reforms” or “leverage”

In the quest to reach consensus on a transportation package, Republican members of the Senate Majority Coalition have moved toward the Democrats’ position significantly. As a result, the Democrats’ edifice of excuses for delay is collapsing.

In the latest proposal from Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima):

  • Republicans have called for ending the practice of putting sales tax revenues from transportation projects into the general fund; now that provision would be delayed until 2019. Democrats want to keep that money flowing to general government programs.
  • More money would go toward transit, bike lanes, and pedestrian projects.
  • The amount of the toxics clean-up fund that would be spent on transportation mitigation is reduced.
  • Reforms to the prevailing wage surveys would apply to projects in the future, not current projects.

These are significant concessions that represent a good-faith effort to listen and respond to some Democrats’ complaints. The proposal still includes important tax and prevailing wage reforms, just not on the same schedule as originally proposed.

The bill also makes clear that the governor may not impose a Low Carbon Fuels Standard, which would greatly add to the price of gas, without legislative approval. Gov. Inslee has refused to say anything about his intentions on this front, which has made passing a transportation package more difficult.

Rather than tip his hand, Inslee has basically asked legislators to trust him that he’ll make wise decisions regarding LCFS. That’s not good enough. Yesterday he said legislators shouldn’t get their “knickers in a twist” over his plans, but recent problems with cost estimates from his office regarding LCFS make accepting a “just trust me” promise even more difficult.

The Spokesman Review reported on Inslee’s comments yesterday: “They’re just using the carbon fuel tax as an excuse for inaction, Inslee said today. There’s no proposal, so there’s no way to calculate costs.” Those who remember his present-tense promises during the campaign (“I am not proposing a tax increase”) that preceded his tax increase proposals as governor may recognize the same basic disingenuous construction here.

Among legislators’ deliberations, it’s curious that Senate Democrats’ opposition to key reforms extends so far as to ignore a bill that would require the state Department of Transportation to inform the legislature when design errors cost taxpayers a half-million or more. As Sen. Steve O’Ban pointed out in an op-ed, Democrats in the House easily passed this bill, and it’s supported by the Department of Transportation itself.

That’s as basic and bipartisan of a reform as you can have, so why would Senate Democrats’ ignore it? Turns out, Transportation Committee co-chair Tracey Eide (D-Federal Way) was perhaps a little too honest on camera about that, saying that holding reforms hostage is “the only leverage I have.”

O’Ban summed up the problem well in his op-ed:

Taxpayers are reasonable. They value government and are willing to fund it — when they believe government is using their hard-earned wages (through taxes) prudently. Taxpayers don’t demand perfection, they just need to know government officials are being as careful with public funds as they are with their own. That clearly is not happening on megaprojects managed by WSDOT.

The reforms (“so-called reforms” as the Everett Herald editorial board put it recently, in what was a curious and poorly-thought out editorial) O’Ban and other majority senators are calling for are necessary for restoring public trust that they’re gas tax dollars are well spent, and that an increase would be used efficiently. They’re not bargaining chips or leverage, they’re ideas that legislators in both parties should rally around.

— Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.