Although the legislative session ended on April 25, ongoing discussions regarding Sen. Steve Hobbs’ (D-44) Forward Washington transportation package and growing frustration with Governor Jay Inslee’s continued use of emergency powers is likely to prompt a special session.
The state legislature this session passed a low carbon fuel standard (LCFS) bill along with cap-and-trade legislation that both require passage of a new transportation revenue package before they can be implemented. Inslee has yet to sign either bill, and there remains a possibility he could use a line-item veto to remove that bill language – which for the LCFS was among the conditions necessary to secure key Senate Democrat support. The cap-and-trade bill also directs billions in new revenue to transportation projects.
Washington Policy Center (WPC) Director of the Center for the Environment Todd Myers said at a May 11 webinar that a line-item veto of those provision is “probably illegal, but the governor has done that before. The governor may go and blow up that grand bargain.”
The mandate for a transportation package was included in both bills due to apprehensions over gas price spikes that could make it more difficult to enact Forward Washington, which would directly increase the state gas tax currently at $.49 by another $.10. Myers says both policies will add $.50 per gallon to the price of fuel by 2030. “(We) get nothing on roads for either of them. We’re facing a very big increase in gas and energy costs in the near future.”
Although bonding is an alternative means of generating revenue for capital projects, former state legislator and WPC Small Business Director Mark Harmsworth noted that more than half of the gas tax revenue already goes toward debt payments. “It’s a spiral that’s never going to end if they keep down that path.” Also, bonding authorization would require the support of Republican lawmakers.
Aside from investing in infrastructure maintenance and preservation, Forward Washington would also fund critical fish culvert replacement projects required under a U.S. court injunction. The legislature this session approved SB 5381, sponsored by Hobbs, that streamlines the permit process for fish culvert projects; a similar proposal was approved via HB 1382 for other salmon recovery projects.
Another debate that could trigger a special session or be added to the session agenda is that of Inslee’s COVID-19 response strategy as part of his state of emergency declaration made more than a year ago. To date, Washington and Hawaii remain the only states without a plan or date to fully reopen. Recently a group of Pierce County Democrats released a letter protesting a pause on restriction rollbacks and what they perceive as his inconsistent standards for various Puget Sound counties. The letter warns that unless Inslee reexamines his Roadmap to Recovery plan, a special session could be on the horizon.
Also taking issue with Inslee’s response is House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D-27), who recently told the Tacoma News Tribune editorial board she was “very frustrated with how the rollback and delay went.”
Yet for some, such as WPC Government Reform Director Jason Mercier, the remarks may seem a day late and a dollar short when the legislature had several months to curb the governor’s powers.
HB 1029, sponsored by Sen. Jim Walsh (R-19), would have restricted the governor’s emergency powers as written in state law, but the measure didn’t pass. Neither did SB 5114,sponsored by Sen. John Braun (R-20), which would have allowed the state to immediately reopen under Phase 2 of Inslee’s Roadmap to Recovery plan. The legislature didn’t even approved SB 5196 sponsored by Sen. Andy Billig (D-3), which would have specified the procedures for how the legislature can call itself into a special session.
“The majority party refused to act,” Mercier said at the May 11 webinar. “Welcome to the party, but it would have been nice if you had done your job while you were in session.”