Gas-tax measure goes down in defeat

Washington state taxpayers yesterday gave a resounding no to a $7.8 billion tax package touted by political leaders as a down payment on fixing the state's ailing transportation system.

Initial tallies showed Referendum 51, which included a 9-cents-a-gallon gas-tax increase, failing heavily in rural areas. The measure also trailed in King County, long viewed as its only chance of passing. Supporters had hoped that the densely populated county would carry the state.

Every politician knows what a loss means: months, maybe even years, of political squabbling over how to pay for a backlog of transportation projects. New road construction is expected to largely grind to a halt in the meantime, and the state Department of Transportation expects to lay off hundreds of workers. Notices probably will start going out this month.

Defeat also throws a monkey wrench into efforts by King, Pierce and Snohomish counties to put together a multibillion-dollar tax package aimed at Puget Sound transportation projects, originally expected to be put to voters in the spring. The measure depended heavily on money from Referendum 51.

Planning for mega projects, such as replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, rebuilding the Highway 520 floating bridge and widening Interstate 405 could be shut down by June if no new money comes through.

"I'm very, very disappointed, but determined to press on," Gov. Gary Locke said yesterday. "The odds were daunting. The odds were stacked against us. We cannot and will not give up on this quest."

House Democratic leaders said they plan to step back and figure out their next move.

"It looks like we need to analyze what the voters rejected and determine what direction we take," said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam.

"I don't want to rush into anything. Voters get very cranky when they say 'no' and legislators say, 'Oh, you didn't mean that.' "

Environmental groups opposed to Referendum 51 said they'll start work on a new transportation package that, they say, stands a better chance of gaining public support.

"The defeat of Referendum 51 doesn't make the problem go away," said John Healy, a spokesman for Citizens for Real Transportation Solutions, a coalition of environmental groups opposed to the measure. "We need to ... hammer together a plan that gives voters what they want."

Citizens for Real Transportation Solutions has said it plans to push an alternative proposal in the Legislature this coming session that would put more money into public transportation and critical safety projects such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Highway 520 floating bridge.

Many political leaders don't see that happening, especially with the Legislature facing a budget deficit that could top $2 billion.

"Am I going to cut old people and nursing homes (to) give more money to transit?" asked the chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island. "I'll tell them (environmentalists) to get in line.

"I'm chairman of transportation, but my priority is certainly people." said Haugen, who, along with other lawmakers, questions whether the Legislature will take any action on transportation in the new year. "If it's a huge downturn, I don't think the Legislature will do anything," she said. "I think it's just going to be so overshadowed by the budget that it's going to take I don't know how long to put it together."

Another factor that could determine whether the Legislature moves ahead on transportation is which party ends up controlling the House and Senate.

"I wouldn't see much coming if Republicans take control," said Lance LeLoup, a political-science professor at Washington State University.

Rep. Fred Jarrett, R-Mercer Island, said a group of Republicans has been working in the past few weeks to craft a 5-cents-a-gallon gas-tax-increase measure to introduce if Referendum 51 failed.

"We should pass a five-cent gas tax in Olympia and do that in the first 10 to 30 days and then get on with everything else," said Jarrett, a member of the House Transportation Committee.

Jarrett only saw a chance of that happening if Referendum 51 lost by a relatively close vote.

Referendum 51 was put on the 2002 ballot by the Legislature earlier this year after Locke could not get enough legislators to increase the taxes for transportation.

The measure would have raised gasoline taxes from 23 to 32 cents a gallon. It also included a 30 percent increase in truck-weight fees and an additional 1 percent sales tax on new and used vehicles.

Referendum 51 would have paid for transportation projects across the state and included money for major projects such as widening Interstate 405 and building car-pool lanes. In addition, there were millions of dollars for ferries and transit.

Much of the transportation debate is likely to shift to Puget Sound.

The Legislature earlier this year gave King, Pierce and Snohomish counties the authority, with voters' approval, to raise taxes, such as the sales tax and motor-vehicle-excise tax to help pay for transportation projects. The counties could also use tolls.

The money was to be combined with revenue from Referendum 51, most of which was slated to be spent in the central Puget Sound region. County officials were piecing together a package they hoped to submit to voters next spring.

"There's no question there will be a delay," King County Executive Ron Sims said.

And expect to see county officials back in Olympia this January asking for changes in the law, such as allowing individual counties to move ahead on their own. The law presently requires at least two of the three counties (one of which has to be King) to join in putting a proposal before voters. In addition, the entire proposal the counties have been working on may be ripped up and started over.

"We'll have to focus the money more so we can deliver something," said Metropolitan King County Councilman Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue, a member of the regional board that has been drafting a plan.

Some lawmakers say they fear that the Legislature may simply let the Puget Sound area move ahead on its own without state support.

"The worst thing of all that could happen is that King County and the central Puget Sound will move forward and solve its problems, and the rest of us will suffer," Haugen said.

Environmental groups played a significant role in the measure's defeat, said Stuart Elway, a Seattle pollster who runs Elway Research.

King County has always been the key to winning, he said, and that's where the groups have their strongest support. Elway believes that dampened the support in the county.

Environmental groups have said that if lawmakers don't move ahead with a plan this coming session, they might try to put an initiative before the voters asking for more money for public transportation.

Elway says any future tax package will still have to overcome voter distrust. Polling shows that voters question the ability of government to spend their money wisely. Among those who planned to vote no on Referendum 51, distrust is a bigger factor than the size of the tax increase.

"It's the application of the money, not the amount," Elway said.

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or