Area legislators differ on gas tax

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen  is questioned by Noland Gray, who attended the League of Women Voters event in Oak Harbor to ask about health care issues. - Jim Larsen
Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen is questioned by Noland Gray, who attended the League of Women Voters event in Oak Harbor to ask about health care issues.
— image credit: Jim Larsen

Conflicting opinions on a gas tax increase were evident Saturday in Oak Harbor when the 10th District’s delegation to Olympia met the public in a session sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

The differences voiced by Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen and Reps. Barry Sehlin and Kelly Barlean are now being played out on a larger stage in Olympia, where the 2002 session of the legislature convened Monday.

There is a consensus that the state needs more money for transportation improvements, but no similar consensus on precisely how the money should be raised.

Haugen, a Democrat from Camano Island, spoke strongly in favor of the 9 cents per gallon gasoline tax hike proposed by Gov. Gary Locke. As chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, she helped guide an identical hike through the Senate last year. But it fell victim to what was then an evenly divided House. This time, the Democrats have a one-vote edge in the House and continue to control the Senate.

Haugen, speaking to a crowd of about 60 citizens at Henderson’s Restaurant, said she sees no problem delivering what the governor wants this year. “The Senate is ready to go, we have the votes,” she said. “But I can’t speak for the House.”

Haugen drew the only widespread applause during the hour-long question and answer session when she pooh-poohed the idea of sending the gas tax hike to the voters. “We ought to do it in Olympia,” she told the breakfast crowd. “We’re in a crisis situation.”

Sehlin, a Republican from Oak Harbor, encouraged the Senate to act quickly. “Pass the darn thing over and make us deal with it,” he said of the gas tax. But the always-cautious Sehlin made no prediction as to its fate in the House, noting only that “there’s a glimmer of optimism.” Several gas tax ideas could get 45 votes, he said, but it takes 50 to get anything approved.

Barlean, a Langley Republican, disagreed with Haugen’s desire to pass the gas tax in Olympia. “We have to be realists,” he said. “If we pass it, Tim Eyman will get the signatures to put it on the ballot. We know it’s going to be on the ballot.”

Rather than waiting for Eyman, the state’s initiative king, to gather signatures, Barlean, reflecting the view of many Republicans, would prefer to send the gas tax directly to the voters. “I give voters credit,” he said. “Show them the needs. They’ll vote for it.”

Balancing budget won’t be easy

Complex as passing a gas tax may be, it will probably be simple compared to the Legislature’s major duty of the 60-day session: Amending the budget approved last year to accommodate a $1.2 billion shortfall caused by the recession.

Sehlin didn’t support the budget finally approved last July because he feared what did happen to the economy would happen. But he wasn’t gloating on Saturday because of the difficulty of making needed budget cuts. He was co-chair of the Appropriations Committee last year, but the Democrats control the committee this year. That’s not all bad, Sehlin said. “The silver lining is somebody’s going to be in charge, although I’d much rather be chair.”

Sehlin said the Legislature will have to come up with $1.5 billion to cover the projected deficit and carry a reserve into next year. It won’t be easy, he said. If education and human services are protected, all other state spending could be eliminated and still the $1.5 billion goal would not be achieved.

“Those things have to be on the table and they will be,” Sehlin said. “No on knows what will be cut, but the cuts will be painful. Somebody’s going to lose their jobs, somebody’s going to lose some services.”

Sehlin took issue with the governor’s proposal to cut nursing home reimbursements by 12 percent while giving state workers a “significant” cost of living pay increase. “Which one of those is most important? he asked. “What’s the most vulnerable?”

Haugen described health care as this year’s “sleeper issue,” because its escalating costs impact so many elements of society, from rural hospitals to prescription drug users. “Health care is eating everybody up,” she said.

Of interest specifically to Island County, the legislators seemed optimist that the “rural county” bill will finally be approved. The designation would allow the county to keep a portion of the sales tax for infrastructure needed for development. The county would receive an estimated $400,000 annually. The bill passed the Senate last year and still has the support of Senate leaders, Haugen said. Barlean described himself as “very optimistic” it will pass the House this year.

County Commissioner Mac McDowell expressed concern that the governor’s budget calls for the elimination of the so-called “backfill” money sent to counties after Initiative 695 slashed local funds used for law enforcement and health programs. “Take away 10 to 15 percent, not 100 percent,” urged McDowell, saying the money is needed for the county’s “most vulnerable” citizens.

With little to do but cut programs, the legislators nodded agreement with one of Haugen’s statements. “It isn’t going to be a very pleasant session,” she said.

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