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Gas Is So Taxing 

by Kevin Taylor & r & Over here in Spokane, it seems we miss out on all the good catfights. The "debate" over Initiative 912 (a measure that would repeal a 9.5 & cent; hike in the state gas tax that is supposed to raise $8 billion to fix our roads) is playing out like a Three Stooges skit, and has become so surreal that even the Seattle Mariners are getting noogies.


The Mariners, it turns out, signed on with other Seattle power brokers to make a pitch for voters to reject the initiative and keep the gas-tax increase. Sadly, like many Mariners pitches (you can see where this is going, right?), it was smacked out of the park by the backers of I-912, who posted a link on their Web site (www.nonewgastax.com) that takes you to the final MLB standings where you scroll all the way down-down-down to -- What is that place called? The cellar? -- to find the M's.


Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.


So far, the message is clear: Mr. Washington Taxpayer, don't let a loser put a hand in your pocket.


The message gets muddied when the 912 people also take shots at lawyers, Weyerhaeuser, Microsoft, land surveyors, construction and engineering firms who "stand to benefit financially" from tax-supported road projects.


Wait, isn't that what Republicans usually favor?


So what's going on here? I-912, it appears, is plain and simple, a knee-jerk reaction to taxation that has its root in the 1999 repeal of the motor vehicle excise tax. The gas-tax hike passed with bipartisan support in the Legislature last session. It calls for an additional 9.5 & cent; per gallon be phased in over three years. In 16 years, the tax is projected to raise $8.5 billion for transportation projects.


And it isn't the first time legislators from both parties have used a hike in the gas tax to pay for transportation issues in the wake of I-695. In 2003, even Dino Rossi voted for a 5 & cent; boost.


So the I-912 push seems to be all about rabid anti-Big Government forces making like the Stooges and slapping silly anybody who dares to use that three-letter word ending in "x." The initiative's backers don't deny there are pressing transportation issues -- but they offer no alternative funding ideas.


The issues include gridlock throughout the Puget Sound region, mass transit issues and keeping the state's shipping ports from being choked off. Another component is safety. After the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, engineers have identified some 300 bridges or overpasses that need attention so they don't fall apart in the next shaker.





These sorts of road projects are not sexy. They are always more complicated and more expensive than most people can imagine. And they are hard to sell in a way that captivates the public.


But attacking them is easy.


Pitching outrage to taxpayers, the anti-tax crusaders -- with some major spittle from right-wing talk-radio -- got I-912 onto the ballot by collecting some 420,000 signatures in just about a month.


The I-912 backers don't dispute that the state's highways and bridges need work. They simply mock the state Department of Transportation wonks as wastrels who are out of touch with reality. They depict Seattle as some sort of Subaru-driving, ragg sock-wearing, mochaccino-sipping land of aliens who don't deserve to get three-fifths of the $8.5 billion in "our" tax dollars. Even if that's where most of the fixes are needed (for example, the Alaskan Way viaduct and the Evergreen Point floating bridge).


They scream about waste, but don't say where. They offer no alternative to transportation problems. They know it's easy to raise suspicions and get people to just say no to that horrible three-letter word.


In the meantime, who is the real loser here? It could be any driver in Western Washington -- even a conservative listening to talk radio as he creeps along at about six miles per hour.


Correspondent Austin Jenkins of the Northwest Public Radio news network spent a couple of morning commutes last week, north of Seattle, riding with people on both sides of the 912 debate. The most striking aspect of his report was noting that it took 13 minutes for the car to travel a mile and a half in conditions seen as commonplace.


Letter writers to the Everett Herald recently noted their average car-pool commute to Seattle has doubled from 45 to 90 minutes in recent years.


The tax hike raises money to address such problems; I-912 takes that money away and offers nothing in its place.


In a climate in which gasoline prices and other expenses are rising, it's easy to get voters to just say no. A recent poll showed 53 percent of voters statewide would say yes to I-912 while only 42 percent would vote to preserve the gas tax increase.


Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, notes the tax hike includes more than $150 million for North-South freeway efforts in Spokane and contends a yes vote on I-912 could be shortsighted.


"If we don't take care of the major Puget Sound problems, it's not like there would be more money for Eastern Washington -- there would be less," she says. "Congestion, safety and the economy -- keeping our ports competitive -- those are always going to be at the top of the list.


"There will never be a Legislature that says, 'Hey, let's ignore Puget Sound and take care of the rest of the state,'" Brown says.


But any tax increase is a tough sell when regular folks like Mary Mumma, the 78-year-old owner of Mumma Trucking, says the state's "got enough taxes right now. We're hardly surviving the way it is."
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