- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 17, 2015

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - House Democrats in Washington state have stopped negotiations on a transportation revenue package until a state operating budget deal is reached, the chamber’s key transportation negotiator said Wednesday.

House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, a Democrat from Mercer Island, said that she was asked on Tuesday by caucus leadership to temporarily halt talks with Senate Republicans, which have been ongoing for weeks.

Clibborn says that both sides had been close to coming to agreement on a transportation funding package that would include a gas tax increase to pay for projects across the state. Clibborn says she’s frustrated by the development, but says that both sides are close enough to a transportation agreement that they could move quickly once a final state budget deal has been struck.

“I’m feeling comfortable about where we are,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll slide backwards if we wait or else I’d be more upset.”

The Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate have been locked in budget negotiations for several weeks. They are currently in a second overtime legislative session after adjourning both a regular 105-day legislative session and a 30-day special session without reaching a budget deal.

Officials from the governor’s budget office have already released a contingency plan on what state offices may have to close completely if a budget isn’t signed into law before midnight June 30, when the current two-year budget ends. The current special session ends on June 27, which means that lawmakers could call a third special session if their work isn’t done by then.

The transportation negotiating team has been meeting two to three times a week to negotiate differences between their packages that were introduced earlier this year, Clibborn said. Both the House and Senate are looking at $15 billion plans that include an incremental gas tax increase.

Clibborn said she canceled a previously scheduled meeting Wednesday with Sen. Curtis King, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Clibborn said that based on the current environment surrounding the operating budget negotiations, she said the timing isn’t right for her caucus to consider a transportation deal.

“I’m not thrilled, but I understand if I came forward with decision and everyone else in my caucus is upset, it doesn’t bode well for their support for transportation,” she said.

King said he was disappointed with the decision.

“All of us were working very well together,” he said. “We were getting close to having an agreement. Now they want to take what has been a very good process and politicize it and hold it hostage.”

If lawmakers pass an operating budget before the end of the current special session, Clibborn said she hopes there will be time to move transportation shortly thereafter. But there’s also a possibility of coming back in a third special session, either because lawmakers have to move into extra overtime for the operating budget, or solely to deal with transportation, Clibborn said.

“Whatever happens, transportation will be ready to go,” she said.

King warned that if a package isn’t passed this year, it will likely be two years before the Legislature takes up transportation funding again, saying that because next year is an election year, it will be harder to get lawmakers to vote on a gas tax.

“We just have a variety of issues in our transportation system that need to be addressed,” he said. “Bridges and highways that are crumbling, trying to address congestion. The longer we wait the more it’s going to cost us.”

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