(The Center Square) – The 18th Amendment to Washington state’s Constitution was frequently cited by those testifying against proposed legislation establishing a road usage charge, or RUC, during Thursday afternoon’s public hearing before the House Transportation Committee.
Lawmakers began discussing the legislation at a Tuesday public hearing that was suspended until Thursday.
House Bill 1832 would implement a gradual shift to a pay-by-mile system to fund road projects. Per the legislation, drivers would pay 2.5 cents for every mile driven on publicly-funded roads, voluntarily beginning on July 1, 2025, with a target date of Jan. 1, 2030 for implementing a comprehensive, mandatory pay-by-mile system.
The 18th Amendment to the state constitution restricts the expenditure of gas tax and vehicle license fees deposited into the motor vehicle fund to “highway purposes.”
Mike Ennis, government affairs director at the Association of Washington Business, opposed the legislation on the grounds that “revenue is not protected by the 18th Amendment. If a road use charge is meant to replace the gas tax, then it should be treated in the same way, and like gas tax revenues, protecting a RUC under the 18th Amendment would honor the principle that users who pay the fee are ensured to receive the benefit.”
He went on to express distrust of how the Legislature might spend money raised by HB 1832 without such a provision.
“The Legislature has a long history of sweeping funds for other uses,” he told the committee. “Protecting the RUC for highway expenditures directly ties the per mile rate to actual road usage, thus providing much needed legitimacy to a new funding source that will be viewed skeptically by the public. And if you doubt that, I would encourage you to pull up the 46 pages of folks who have signed in in opposition to this bill.”
Jerry VanderWood, chief lobbyist at Associated General Contractors of Washington, said much the same thing.
“However, AGC cannot support any RUC proposal that does not clearly provide an 18th Amendment-type protections,” he said. “We believe that constitutional protection is needed because even though this Legislature and those in the near future may adhere to protecting these funds, future Legislatures – facing different economic and budgetary considerations – may not feel committed to protecting these user fees.”
Anti-tax activist Tim Eyman said, “You’re not going to be able to convince people that this isn’t just going to become just another slush fund, which everyone on the other side seems to be advocating for unless the people trust you.”
Sheri Call, president Washington Trucking Association, expressed her opposition to HB 1832, citing the 18th Amendment as well.
“Trucking strongly believes these funds and future funds should be protected under our constitution’s 18th Amendment, which protects highway user fees for highway uses,” she said. “This protection of our dollars is key to the trucking industry and Washington state.”
Bryce Yadon, a lobbyist representing Transportation Choices Coalition, signed in as “other” on the bill, referenced the amendment as well.
“Moving forward, we would like to make sure that this is an 18th Amendment-protected as we look at our transportation system holistically,” he explained.
Jeff Pack of Washington Citizens Against Unfair Taxes didn’t mention the 18th Amendment during his remote testimony, but he did have the distinction of being the only person to address the committee that day with a bird perched on his right shoulder.
“We don’t like it,” he said of the pay-by-mile legislation. “It’s not better for us and you know it. Yet here you are trying to shove it down our throats yet again. But we keep being told if we do this and do that, you’ll fix our roads, but you never do. Here’s a novel concept: stop all the new spending on all your latest agendas. Yet here you are asking for more money.”
Those who spoke on HB 1832 were almost evenly split between those signed in as “other” or “opposed.”
Three people testified in support of the bill.
Jefferson County resident Tom Thiersch was one of the three, and he didn’t buy opponents’ 18th Amendment arguments against HB 1832.
“That’s just a false premise for opposing this bill,” he said. “Even if it were put into the bill, it could just as easily be changed by future legislation, so what’s the point?”