SALEM — State lawmakers drafting a multibillion-dollar package of infrastructure upgrades say the plan is in jeopardy and may not pass this year.
Failing to pass the proposal would mark the second time in two years that a transportation package has been drafted only to die without a vote, dealing a major blow to the agendas of Gov. Kate Brown and other top Democrats. Brown, Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek have time and again proclaimed a transportation improvement plan must be passed this year.
Democratic and Republican leaders have warned for years that roads are crumbling, bridges would fall like matchsticks in an earthquake and that traffic bottlenecks drain commuters and freighters of valuable time and fuel. Something must be done, they say.
Nearly two dozen metro-area mayors, including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, agree and issued a statement June 20 calling on lawmakers to act. “We are united and ready to move forward,” their statement said.
A plan released in May by a special committee assembled to craft a transportation deal would draw from several revenue sources to fund a decade of upgrades and maintenance.
The legislation would increase statewide gas taxes and vehicle registration fees. It would also establish new revenue streams: a statewide payroll tax, a tax on car and bicycle sales, tollways and Portland-area tax and fee hikes. It is a decidedly go-big-or-go-home plan.
But key legislators of both parties say partisan politics, pressure from moneyed interest groups and the inherent complexity of transportation policy have cast a pall over efforts to secure its passage.
Sen. Lee Beyer, a Springfield Democrat and one of four lawmakers heading the special transportation committee, was visibly frustrated June 20 at the prospect of transportation negotiations imploding. He said he is unsure a transportation bill will pass this year.
“I’m at the point of just wanting to be done with it,” Beyer said.
Rep. Cliff Bentz, another committee leader, agreed with Beyer that the plan’s success is uncertain. “The complexities of the package are significant,” Bentz said, and pose a challenge to reaching a deal that pleases both Capitol political factions and interest groups.
Sen. Fred Girod another member of the special transportation committee, was more blunt.
“I think it’s slim to zip that we get it out this session,” Girod said. “There’s just too many moving parts and we can’t figure out what it’s going to be.”
The only sunny outlook came from committee leader Sen. Brian Boquist.
“I actually think there’s votes to pass it,” he said. “The fundamental question is, is it in good enough shape to keep it off the ballot?”
Several powerful interest groups oppose tax-raising aspects of the transportation plan, lawmakers say. If the bill is passed into law and those groups remain upset, they could launch a signature-gathering campaign and send the entire transportation bill to voters, who are given to rejecting tax hikes.
Lawmakers worry such a ballot challenge may succeed, undermining their two-year effort.
Beyer rattled off a short list of potential opposition groups: Petroleum sellers dislike the gas tax. The AAA and auto dealers disapprove of a tax on car sales. Cyclists oppose a tax on bikes.
All lawmakers can do, Bentz said, is reach out to interest groups and try to negotiate. “Some are willing to sit down and talk,” he said. “Others are not.”
Beyond the ballot, Bentz said, “one of the bigger challenges” is how Democrats are addressing Republican demands to alter the state clean fuels law. Two years ago, Republicans wanted to repeal the law, which requires petroleum sellers to blend low-carbon fuels into their gas. But now Republicans only wish to modify the law to cap its costs, Bentz said.
Democratic leaders have so far been unwilling to budge, he said, and will not allow a bill modifying the fuels law to move forward. He said he is unsure if Democrats will eventually cave to earn Republican votes. At least one Republican vote is needed in both the House and Senate to pass the transportation plan, since Democrats lack supermajorities.
Lawmakers have been busy drafting amendments to the bill to make it more palatable for hold-out lawmakers and interest groups, Beyer said. The amendments, which should go public later this week, will likely lessen gas tax and fee increases, he said.
But a smaller package means fewer projects. Bentz acknowledged that reality, though he declined to say which projects would be axed. He indicated that most project money would still be funneled into Portland, where lawmakers are eyeing congestion-relief projects on Interstate 5, Interstate 205 and Oregon 217.
Conflicting political demands and ballot threats are still pulling lawmakers in every which way, in part ensuring that no one will truly be happy no matter what outcome is achieved.
At this point, lawmakers are entertaining the idea that no plan will be passed by the annual adjournment deadline, July 10.
Asked if he would rework the transportation bill during the interim months and come back with a new plan next year, Beyer said, “I’m not inclined to.”
When pressed about what legislators would do if a deal is not reached, Beyer was glum.
“We’d do the same thing we’ve done for the last 20 years,” he said. “Nothing.”