Speaking at Emerald Downs in Auburn this morning, Republican State Sen. Joe Fain (R-47, Auburn) told the Southwest King County Chamber that he wants the legislature to pass a big gas tax to fund a transportation package this session.
It's something Fain's been saying on the eastside campaign trail for a while, but for a prominent Republican—he's vice chair of the senate transportation committee—to lay out the necessity of a gas tax so emphatically offered a needed note of hope as ideological battle lines are being drawn just three days before the session starts on Monday.
Earlier this week, for example, Sen. Fain's outspoken colleagues, Republican state Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42, Ferndale) and Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-6, Spokane), floated the idea of changing senate rules so that raising taxes would require an unlikely two thirds majorty. And Ericksen, the senate environmental chair, told me yesterday: "For legislators to be delusional and think they're going to lead with a gas tax increase and people are just going to say, 'Oh, OK. You guys are making such great use of our money now, please take more....' That's not the way it's going to work.")
The GOP couldn't muster the votes for a transportation package two sessions running after the Democratic house passed and sent over a 10.5 cents gas tax in 2013.
But an "optimistic" (his words) Sen. Fain told me this afternoon, "I want to have a package that is large enough to complete the major projects that we all look at as being significant like landing the 520 bridge, the north south freeway in Spokane, and in my own community the 167/509 gateway project. If you're going to be talking about doing a package of that size, you're going to need to be in excess of ten cents a gallon."
Sen. Fain certainly noted Ericksen's call for reforms, but framed it in more collegial terms, saying that his position was similar to his Democratic counterparts on the transportation committee: "We're trying to be flexible deal makers. We need the major resources to build these projects throughout the state, but also to make some meaningful reforms to improve delivery and cut back on some of the problems we've seen on the 520 bridge and 'Big Bertha.' Finding a sweet spot will allow us to get a package out. And I remain optimistic that we can do it this year."
"The path to success for a transportation package is down the middle of the highway" without the ideologues ... "And that's good. I think that's fine."—Auburn GOP state Sen. Joe FainThe major GOP reforms on the list in past sessions have been getting rid of union prevailing wage standards on transportation projects and putting transportation sales tax money toward transportation projects rather than toward the general fund—niether of which seem to have much to do with upgrading public confidence in delivering projects. (Nor do they have Democratic support.) Sen. Fain told me that other reforms include expanding public/private partnerships on projects to enforce design/build accountability measures (he thinks that would have saved WSDOT from picking up the tab on the $1 billion in 520 overruns). He also says permitting reforms are on the table.
Asked about the GOP call for two-thirds rule on taxes and its effect the possibility of raising the gas tax, Sen. Fain would only tell me: "I'd imagine the caucus is going to have a conversation about the implications of that on Monday."
For his part, Fain says: "I'm still pretty optimistic that [a transportation package] can go forward. And I do think support for a transportation package is pretty significant and goes beyond the bare minimum of votes that we need ... that you traditionally think of requiring to pass something."
He wasn't willing to name names, but Fain said "the path to success for a transportation package is down the middle of the highway" which will lose the ideologues. He added: "And that's good. I think that's fine."
At a progresssive transportation forum in downtown Seattle today, Fain's Democratic counterpart on the transportation committee, assistant ranking member Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Mukilteo), referred to Sen. Fain's comments in front of the South King County Chamber. Sen. Liias joked that the best thing about Gov. Jay Inslee's carbon tax proposal to help fund a transportation package is that it's got Republicans supporting a gas tax.