Afternoon Jolt

Democrats Test Republican Two-Thirds Rule, Shut Down Senate Transportation Vote

A Vancouver Democrat forces a decision on the Republicans' new rule requiring a two-thirds majority to raise taxes.

By Josh Feit February 27, 2015

The afternoon wasn't going well for the Democrats on the state senate floor today. But after losing on a parade of amendments to the $15 billion, 11.7 cent gas tax transportation bill, senator Annette Cleveland (D-49, Vancouver) shut the session down.

Cleveland, who voted against the transportation package in committee earlier this month (in part because the 16-year package does not include funding for an I-5 light rail bridge between Vancouver and Portland), asked senate president and lieutenant governor Brad Owen to rule on whether passing a gas tax required a two-thirds majority vote. It was sweet revenge for the Democrats. In January, during the first week of the session, the Republicans found a way around the big deal 2013 Washington Supreme Court ruling against Tim Eyman's voter-approved two-thirds rule by changing senate rules. They voted to require a two-thirds vote to bring new tax measures to the floor for a vote in the first place. Now the antitax rule was being used to stall a Republican plan.

"The two-thirds rule should not apply only to those taxes the Republican majority likes." —State senator Annette Cleveland

The question ever since has been whether a gas tax for a new transportation package constitutes a "new" tax. Anticipating the challenge when his party passed the new rule in January, Republican senator Joe Fain (R-47, Auburn) explicitly said the new rule did not apply to existing taxes such as a gas tax—as opposed to a new tax such as governor Jay Inslee's call for carbon tax.

After her motion this afternoon, Senator Cleveland said in a statement:

"Today was the first opportunity to put [the two-thirds] rule to the test. The transportation package includes an increase in gas taxes and other motor vehicle fees that I believe constitute new revenue. The two-thirds rule should not apply only to those taxes the Republican majority likes."

With Owen expected to rule on Monday, the senate was adjourned today for the weekend after Senator Cleveland's motion.

Cleveland's move accomplished two things: 1) It delayed the transportation package which is loaded with Republican provisions such as raiding the toxic cleanup account, gutting environmental review on permitting, and preventing Governor Inslee from enacting low-carbon fuel standards. And 2) it cues up a formal challenge to the Republicans' end run around the state supreme court's anti-Eyman ruling.

Republican spokeswoman Carrie Shaw tells me the GOP has no formal statement on Cleveland's motion. 

"We’re now waiting to see how the lieutenant governor will rule and plan to take up the rest of the transportation package Monday," Shaw says.
"All of the reform bills passed out of the senate, which is good news for Washington," she added. "With the majority coalition in control of the senate, this is the first time in over a decade we have an opportunity to demand greater accountability of WSDOT and lower the cost of building vital infrastructure."

The floor debate up until Cleveland's gotcha gave a preview of what the senate transportation package could look like and how much bipartisan support the $15 billion package may have. Along with Cleveland, two other Democrats voted against the package in committee two weeks ago: senators Pramila Jayapal (D-37, Southeast Seattle) and Cyrus Habib (D-48, Kirkland). Meanwhile, two Democrats, the negotiators on the package from the Democratic side, senators Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens) and Marko Liias (D-21, Mukilteo), who had voted for the main package in committee, also voted with the GOP on a couple of amendments today that were linked to the underlying package—the permitting amendment that Democrats say guts the environmental review process and the amendment that raids the toxics clean up account

However, the pair also voted with the Democrats on a separate measure to strip those very provisions out. The Democratic amendment, which lost on a party line vote, would have also blocked a controversial GOP amendment that takes all sales tax revenue from transportation projects out of the general fund (about $1 billion) and puts it into the transportation package. The Democrats argue that GOP provision will decimate education funding and social service funding.

Liias says: "We were very clear [when negotiating with the Republicans] that our members had concerns, and we wanted to see if the full senate agreed." He went on to explain his strategy: "If we could show them [the Republicans] that there were 25 votes [a majority] to strip those out then great, but we couldn't. So, that's when a few of us will vote for it [the package] to keep the conversation cooking." Liias concluded, however: "I would not support sending the current bill to the governor's desk."

In fact, Liias' fellow Democrat on the negotiating team, Senator Hobbs, sponsored one of the Democratic amendments to address the sales tax provision. His proposal, which lost on party lines, allowed the GOP change, but only after 2019 when the legislature would have presumably met the McCleary mandate to fully fund K–12 education.

Seattle state senator Pramila Jayapal (D-37, Southeast Seattle) proposed a similar amendment, which also lost along party lines. Her compromise amendment would have also gone along with the GOP change, but only after the legislature came up with a plan to fund K–12 first. Her amendment mocked the GOP "Fund Education First" mantra; the GOP has repeatedly proposed not funding any of the budget until they fund education. "It looks like 'funding education first' is just a slogan and not something they're actually willing to do," Jayapal said. 


In addition to the sales tax change and raiding the toxics account, the transportation package includes a few other things the Democrats don't like: Only about 6 percent of the money goes to multimodal projects; Sound Transit got 25 percent less taxing authority than they requested; and the legislation has a provision the Democrats have taken to calling "the poison pill." That provision says that all the money for pedestrian, bike, and transit (that's that 6 percent for multimodal) turns into roads-only money if Governor Inslee uses his executive authority to green-light low carbon fuel standards.

The Republicans dropped an antilabor amendment to scrap prevailing wage standards after a compromise was reached that raised the threshold for including labor apprenticeships in transportation projects.

People have been walking, biking, and busing 
since "before Al Gore
was even born." 
—State senator Cyrus Habib

State senator David Frock (D-46, North Seattle) offered an amendment today to pass full taxing authority for Sound Transit (the MVET, sales tax, and a new property tax would still have to be approved by voters in Sound Transit's Everett to Tacoma district). At the $11 billion currently permitted by the package as opposed to the $15 billion Sound Transit requested, light rail advocates fear that a Sound Transit 3 package will fall short of getting to Everett and Tacoma and building out more lines within Seattle. Speaking in favor of the amendment on the floor, Senator Liias explained the Democrats' reasoning for increasing Sound Transit taxing authority. He painted a picture of a light rail system that failed to extend beyond Boeing's plant in Everett, forcing many of the 30,000 workers to drive there. "You'll have a parking lot full of cars looking like an auto plant instead of where people build planes," he said before the amendment failed along party lines with all the Republicans in ST's district voting against it. That list includes: senators Steve O'Ban (R-28, Lakewood), Bruce Dammeier (R-25, Puyallup), Jan Angel (R-26, Kitsap), Mark Miloscia (R-30, Federal Way), Steve Litzow (R-41, Mercer Island), Andy Hill (R-45, Redmond), and Joe Fain (R-47, Auburn).

The Democrats also failed to pass senator Sharon Nelson's amendment for a "clean" vote; the Democrats wanted to strip out the provision blocking low-carbon fuel standards and delink the bill from the permitting provision and the toxics account provision.

Republican senator Curtis King, the transportation committee chair, said the amendment, by giving Governor Inslee the green light on low-carbon fuel standards, would cause further gas tax increases.

Nelson said her amendment made sure that a transportation funding bill was "not linked to any other legislation that may be based on ideology from either party."

After her amendment lost, Nelson sent out a statement saying: "We are determined to get a funding package that benefits Washingtonians in every corner of our state—but not at the expense of the environment, and our ability to deal with the very real threat of climate change.”

As Nelson's amendment went down along party lines, Democratic Senator Habib got off the line of the day. Protesting that the Republican poison pill to slash multimodal funding if Inslee enacted low-carbon fuel standards unfairly equated buses, biking, and walking (which he said were simply transportation investments) with environmental regulations, he joked that people have been walking, biking, and busing since "before Al Gore was even born."


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