Mark the day: On Wednesday, July 5, 2017, a chamber of the Oregon Legislature voted to approve a bill that pays for critical upgrades to the state's transportation infrastructure.
The House of Representatives approved, on a 39-20 vote, House Bill 2017, which raises taxes and fees to fund the work. The vote was sufficient to hurdle the three-fifths "supermajority" required for tax increases. The bill quickly won approval, as expected, Thursday in the Senate and now moves to Gov. Kate Brown for her signature.
The vote in the House, in particular, is worth noting and celebrating for a number of reasons: First, during the 2015 session, talks over a similar transportation package fell apart even before either chamber was able to vote on the measure. Despite pleas from Brown, who told legislators that she wouldn't let them leave Salem without approving a transportation package, legislators did exactly that.
Also worth noting: In Wednesday's vote, Republicans and Democrats alike voted for the bill. Now, legislators like to talk about how much of their work passes with big bipartisan majorities, and that's often true. But this session, on the biggest issues, bipartisanship has been hard to find. But 11 House Republicans voted for the transportation measure, and all but six Democrats voted for it. (Mid-valley legislators split their votes: Andy Olson of Albany and Dan Rayfield of Corvallis voted yes. Sherrie Sprenger of Scio and Mike Nearman of Independence voted no. In Thursday's vote in the Senate, Sara Gelser voted yes and Fred Girod voted no.)
There's something else worth celebrating about the Wednesday vote in the House: The measure representatives voted on this week, the result of two years of work by a panel of lawmakers (including Olson), won the votes it needed for passage through old-fashioned compromise.
The original proposal called for more than $8 billion worth of projects, but the number had been trimmed down to about $5.3 billion in the version of the bill the House approved. (The original bill also included Portland-area taxes and fees to pay for projects in the three-county metro area; most of those were stripped out of the bill.)
The compromise version also lowered some of the proposed taxes in the bill. In addition, Democratic leaders agreed to Republican demands to modify the state's low-carbon fuel standard, better known as the Oregon Clean Fuels Program. But that in itself represented a measure of compromise: Republicans backed off from earlier demands that Democrats repeal the program.
That clash over the fuels program was part of the reason why the 2015 transportation package fell apart. It's a good bet that legislators on both sides of the aisle felt the urge to compromise to help ensure that the story didn't come to a similar end in 2017.
The bill increases the gas tax by 4 cents a gallon on Jan. 1 and provides for 2-cent increases in 2020, 2022 and 2024. It increases vehicle registration fees, and creates a tiered system in which owners of fuel-efficient and electric vehicles will pay more. It also includes an 0.1 percent payroll tax to fund public transit expansion and a $15 fee on the sale of new adult bicycles.
The measure also includes, thanks to Olson's work, provisions intended to strengthen transparency and accountability within the state's transportation system. These provisions should help ensure that the billions of dollars to be raised for these transportation projects are invested wisely.
There's not any doubt about the need to invest in the state's transportation infrastructure. That need wasn't sufficient to push the measure over the hump in 2015. But years of work to lay the groundwork for the 2017 bill and a willingness to compromise has placed the measure on the verge of becoming law. (mm)