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Originally published April 25, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 4, 2005 at 2:32 PM

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Gas tax is going up

In a stunning turnaround, lawmakers ended the session yesterday by passing an $8.5 billion transportation package that includes a 9.5-cent gas tax over...

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — In a stunning turnaround, lawmakers ended the session yesterday by passing an $8.5 billion transportation package that includes a 9.5-cent gas tax over four years — the biggest increase in state history.

The legislation, which went through the Senate last week, passed the House 54 to 43, with 11 Republicans siding with the Democratic majority. Gov. Christine Gregoire said she'll sign the measure.

The package raises the gas tax by 3 cents a gallon the first year, 3 cents the second year, 2 cents the third year and 1.5 cents in the fourth. It includes $2 billion for the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, $972 million for Interstate 405 on the Eastside, and $500 million toward replacing the Highway 520 bridge over Lake Washington.

"This is absolutely historic," said Duke Schaub, lobbyist for Associated General Contractors of Washington and one of the most powerful figures in Olympia. "This means thousands and thousands of new jobs."

The Legislature, which adjourned at 7:17 last evening, also passed a $26 billion operating budget that includes about $400 million in taxes, as well as a $3 billion state construction budget yesterday. But those votes were practically footnotes to the fight over transportation.

The transportation plan seemed all but dead in the morning after a brutal partisan fight Saturday that saw the same plan defeated by a 54-43 vote.

How much will it cost?


Gas-tax phase-in: The state gas tax will rise 3 cents a gallon the first year, 3 cents the second year, 2 cents the third year and 1.5 cents in the fourth. Here's how much it would cost in three scenarios:

Low-miles driver: Someone who drives 10,000 miles a year and gets 18 miles per gallon pays $17 more the first year, $56 more per year when the tax is fully phased in after four years.

Heavy commuter: Someone who drives 30,000 miles a year and gets 22 miles per gallon pays $41 more the first year, $136 more per year after four years.

Gas guzzler: Someone who drives 20,000 miles a year and gets only 14 miles per gallon pays $43 more the first year, $143 more per year after four years.

Both parties accused each other of dirty politics and preventing members in politically vulnerable districts from taking a risky tax vote. Democratic leaders early in the day were bemoaning a lack of bipartisan cooperation on transportation, while Republicans were accusing the majority party of failing to lead.

Then, shortly after 11 a.m., Gregoire started hammering away at the legislative leadership, trying to break the stalemate. She stopped at House Republican Leader Bruce Chandler's office, then visited House Speaker Frank Chopp and the leaders of both parties in the Senate.

Gregoire said she told all of them, "I want to see a transportation package come out. If that viaduct falls down and peoples' lives are lost, I'm not going to stand here and say we lost it because we couldn't take the vote to get it done."

The governor indicated to leaders in both parties she'd take the Legislature into special session if they didn't pass a transportation plan.

The tactics apparently helped. A little later, Chopp, D-Seattle, and Chandler, R-Granger, met privately and came out agreeing to let all their members vote on the plan without interference.

Minutes after that, the transportation plan came back up for another try. With no debate, Chopp opened up the electronic vote machine and the count quickly surged to 54 votes in favor.

As soon as Chopp locked in the vote, the House erupted in applause, and the scene looked more like a church at the end of a big wedding. Teary-eyed Democratic members swarmed over to hug House Transportation Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and Republicans on the other side.

Senate Transportation Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen rushed to the House floor, where she and Murray shared a long embrace.

"I can't believe we did it," said Haugen, D-Camano Island. "Oh Lord, I can't believe we did it."

Within minutes, Gregoire came upstairs to make an impromptu victory tour and to congratulate members in all four caucuses of the Legislature.

"I want you to know, I voted for something that isn't good for my district," Rep. Jim Clements, R-Selah, told Gregoire. He then asked Gregoire to remember that vote when he comes seeking millions of dollars for a major reservoir project that's still in the planning stages in his district.

It was hard to believe the Democrats and Republicans had been at each others' throats a few hours earlier.

But that's not unusual in the Legislature. "Around this place, you need to argue your point with all the vim and vigor you can," said Deputy House Republican Leader Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee. "But at the end of the day, you should be able to go out to dinner with your opponent and enjoy each other's company."

Armstrong gave Gregoire a lot of credit for breaking the logjam and bringing about the transportation plan's passage.

The governor, he said, made it clear that Democrats needed and wanted the Republicans' help. "She lighted a fire and reignited this issue when it was waning," Armstrong said. "That's what leaders do."

Armstrong, who voted against the transportation package, said those weren't easy words for him to say, given that he hopes Republican Dino Rossi wins in court and can defeat Gregoire in a new election. Rossi lost the 2004 election to Gregoire by 129 votes after two recounts and is challenging the contest in court.

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said Gregoire had to stick her neck out farther than anyone in supporting the gas-tax increase. "She's taking a big political risk on this one," Kessler said, "because she's facing that challenge in court and may be facing a special election" if Rossi wins the case.

Gregoire, meanwhile, said she gives all the credit to the transportation leaders and the lawmakers who voted for the bill. "It's courageous and it's bold," said Gregoire. "We just did the right thing."

The package will not fully pay for replacing the viaduct and 520 bridge. The central Puget Sound region will have to contribute billions of dollars as well.

The transportation plan puts the region on notice that it needs to come up with its share of local money by January 2007 or risk losing funds for projects.

Not everyone was celebrating the gas-tax vote.

"It's a huge concern for us," said Carolyn Logue, a small-business lobbyist. "There has been nothing done this session to relieve costs for small business. ... Some are going to be very hurt by this."

Opponents said it was a bad time to raise the gas tax, given rocketing prices at the pump.

"This package is just too much for the people of Washington state, when you consider the price of gas and what's going on in Washington state with the economy," Rep. Doug Ericksen, R-Bellingham, said during floor debate Saturday. He voted no again yesterday.

Rep. Beverly Woods, R-Kingston, a key transportation negotiator for the House Republicans, said 11 votes was a good number for her party. Much of her caucus comes from rural and Eastern Washington districts where gas taxes are an anathema.

But she felt yesterday's vote bodes well for future cooperation between the parties on transportation issues.

"I think this is a turning point in transportation," she said. "My parents helped pay for the roads we drive on now. We have to continue to make that investment."

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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