Editorials

Editor’s note: Today’s editorials originally appeared in The Yakima Herald-Republic and Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. Editorial content from other publications is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.

A universal topic that prompts communal automotive grumbling is Washington state’s gasoline tax; at 49.4 cents per gallon, it’s one of the highest in the country. In 2015, a phased-in bump-up of 11.9 cents per gallon raised the tax to its current level, with legislative supporters arguing the increase was needed for essential projects such as the Interstate 90 expansion over Snoqualmie Pass, highways that improve access to Puget Sound ports, and long-deferred maintenance of roads and bridges.

But state Department of Transportation officials have fretted for a number of years that the gas tax’s impact is eroding. Vehicles are getting more fuel-efficient, the number of electric and hybrid cars is rising, and people overall are less inclined to drive as much as in past decades. The DOT estimates a 45 percent decline in gas tax revenue by 2035. So the state wants a few more good drivers — yes, we know that there are good ones out there — to test a gas-tax alternative.

The state put out the call last summer for volunteers to take part in a pilot program that may be the first step toward a road usage charge, which taxes vehicles by miles traveled rather than by gasoline guzzled. Last week, word came that about half of the 2,000 drivers needed had stepped forward, but that another 1,000 or so are needed for the program to get going early next year, as the state would like to do.

The state Road Usage Charge Steering Committee — yes, “steering” is in the title — is overseeing the project, and it welcomes drivers from the open spaces of Central Washington and with any kind of car, whether a green electric vehicle or a fuel-thirsty pickup or SUV. For monitoring, drivers will have a choice of a mileage permit with a predetermined block of miles, routine odometer readings, a GPS device or a cellphone app. The Legislature will accept feedback from the test and will shape future policy from there.

The public is likely to be wary of a government program that tracks where people are driving, and state Sen. Curtis King of Yakima raises the question of how to factor in miles driven out of state. Nonetheless, the gas tax — which has been around since 1921 — is due for a review. Motorists behind the wheel of a hybrid or electric car still use the roads and contribute to wear and tear, but they contribute less for construction and upkeep of those motorways.

So .. will a miles tax be an improvement over a gas tax? The state’s experiment, if it gets the required number of drivers, will be a step toward determining whether — as a matter of both policy and politics — it is a way to go.

Approval of state capital budget still means compromise

When the state Legislature convenes in January, Democrats will be in control. And that reality has some folks thinking a politically unified House, Senate and Governor’s Office will be able to finally approve the capital (or construction) budget that stalled this year because of an impasse between Democrats who controlled the House and Republicans who controlled the Senate.

Well, those people could find themselves being wrong — and frustrated.

Democrats will control the Legislature by a slim margin — one vote in the Senate and two votes in the House — but it takes a supermajority (60 percent) to approve the bonding (as in funding) for the capital budget.

That means Democrats won’t be able to approve the capital budget without Republican votes. A deal — a compromise — will be necessary to get the capital budget approved, and it must be approved ASAP.

The fact it was not approved by the July 1 deadline, the beginning of the new fiscal year for the state, has already cost taxpayers plenty. In October, the Walla Walla City Council authorized issuance of up to $23.66 million in bonds and bond anticipation notes.

This was necessary because the state didn’t pass the capital budget, which would have allowed the city to borrow for its water treatment plant and other projects. The result will be $430,660 in interest payments. The story was the same for local governments across the state.

Lawmakers failed to agree on the capital budget before the deadline because Democrats would not join with Republicans in finding a fix for the Hirst court decision, which essentially put the onus on local governments and property owners to determine if enough groundwater is physically and legally available before they issue building permits in rural areas.

To be clear, the failure to reach a compromise to this point is bipartisan.

The current Senate Republican Leader, Mark Schoesler, who will likely be the minority leader in January, said he is against a giving the OK to a capital budget without an agreement to address the Hirst decision.

“Show me a Hirst fix that can get the support of 60 percent of the members,” he said. “What’s changed?”

The costs associated with not having a capital budget grow larger day after day. A solution for the citizens of Washington state is overdue.

Democrats took control of the Senate because of Tuesday’s election. That puts them in charge, and makes them responsible for getting things done.

Leaders from both parties need to get together between now and the opening of the legislative session, hammer out a reasonable compromise on the capital budget and Hirst decision, and then take action.

This mess has already cost taxpayers too much.

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