Voters will have final say on state congestion relief plan

Editor’s Note: Dana Greenlee’s technology column isn’t running this week due to Murphy’s Law. While she’s back from her vacation in Florida, I had planned to run a story on the Western Air Defense Sector at McChord Air Force Base today, so I told her she didn’t need to write a column. Unfortunately, I’m smack dab in the middle of getting a new computer – from a PC to a Mac – and I was unable to download and transfer the photos I needed for the story. Hopefully, my new computer will be up and running next week and everything will be fine. Look for the McChord story next Tuesday. Dana Greenlee’s column will return next Friday. Got all that?

Voters will be given a chance in November to vote on a nearly $8 billion statewide transportation relief package approved late last night by the House and Senate.

Legislative approval came after two long years of tough negotiations, and represented a victory for House Republicans who have insisted that the final plan go to a vote of the people.

“We finally have a bill that holds out some hope that we can start to end traffic gridlock as we know it,” said Rep. Maryann Mitchell (R-Federal Way).

Mitchell is the ranking minority member on the House Transportation Committee.

“Some people might think it spends too much on this or too little on that. Or maybe they will just think it is a lousy idea,” she said.

“I understand that, but I also know this: If we don’t start to fix our transportation problems now, we are headed for economic disaster in this stat,” Mitchell stated. “The people have been pretty clear that they want to vote on this and we should let them.”

Highlights of the package approved by the Legislature include:

– A 9-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase * 5 cents the first year and 4 cents one year after that.

– A one percent increase in the sales tax on new and used vehicles.

– A 30 percent increase (15 percent per year over two years) on gross truck weight fees.

A provision that would have added a 3-cent-per-gallon tax surcharge for diesel fuel on top of the 9-cent increase was removed from the compromise bill.

Agricultural and trucking interests had complained loudly about the surcharge.

“We have kept our promise to the taxpayers of Washington,” Mitchell said.

“Now we have to do everything we can to demonstrate that we are worthy of their trust and of their votes.”

In other legislative news, only hours ahead of its midnight deadline for adjournment Thursday, the state Legislature put to bed a $22.5 billion budget plan that bridges a $1.6 million budget gap.

The two-year plan calls for spending cuts and the use of tobacco settlement funds, state reserves and federal funds.

It will freeze the wages of state employees, cut spending in all state agencies and result in layoffs for 946 workers.

Gov. Gary Locke is expected to sign the bill.

The Senate and House votes fell largely along party lines, with House minority Republicans chastising the what they called “credit card spending” by relying on sometimes-elusive federal funding.

House Minority Leader Clyde Ballard (R-East Wenatchee), referring to the possibility of a special session later this year, advised his colleagues, “Don’t unpack when you get home, because you will be back.”

But Democrats referred to the plan as “a good budget for bad times.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Helen Sommers (D-Seattle), praised it for avoiding general tax increases and honoring education initiatives.