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As expected, Transportation Commission can’t raise tolls without go-ahead from Legislature

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on March 12, 2013 at 4:16 pm with No Comments »
March 14, 2013 12:48 pm

The Transportation Commission can’t raise tolls on its own without the Legislature stepping in, and Sen. Pam Roach and Tim Eyman are arguing against lifting that voter-imposed restriction.

Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn
Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn

If that scenario sounds familiar, yes, you have heard this before.  The same dynamic was at work after Eyman-backed Initiative 1053 passed in 2010, and the issue was debated during a 2011 campaign for Eyman’s failed I-1125.

Now it’s another Eyman initiative at play: I-1185, which passed last November. While its main goal was a now-declared-unconstitutional impediment to tax increases, the measure also made it harder to raise fees such as tolls, license charges and tuition. The measures require the elected Legislature, rather than appointed officials like the transportation commissioners or university trustees, to have the final say on fees. It was almost identical to I-1053, and the governor’s budget office confirmed to Roach last week that it has similar effects on taxes (below), in a letter she released today.

Toll-setting authority is like a hot potato. Lawmakers don’t want to take politically tough votes to set tolls, and they know that the state treasurer says having lawmakers in charge would raise borrowing costs. So they restored the authority to the Transportation Commission in 2011, and voters bounced it back to lawmakers in 2012. Now will lawmakers send it back with another volley?

“What they will do here in Olympia is they will try desperately to divest the Legislature of its responsibility,” said Roach, an Auburn Republican who is part of a Republican-dominated majority in the Senate. “This is going to be an interesting test of what this majority coalition can do.”

Or what it wants to do. The 2011 votes to re-delegate the authority were bipartisan and had support from GOP Sen. Curtis King, now the Transportation Committee co-chairman. I couldn’t immediately reach King.

Regardless, while Eyman is suggesting in e-mails to his supporters and press that this will stop tolls dead in their tracks, the Transportation Commission had anticipated this.

Officials there have said they expect the Legislature to restore their authority before the commission votes May 20 in Gig Harbor on a Tacoma Narrows bridge toll increase. (It recommends an increase next week, then goes into a public process).

Commission Executive Director Reema Griffith said today the board isn’t taking anything for granted and has informed key lawmakers of the situation. She said if tolls don’t go up on Tacoma Narrows drivers, the bridge would have to dip into the state account that is funded by gas tax revenue.

UPDATE 3/14: King said he expects the Senate budget to reinstate the Transportation Commission’s authority.

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