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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Washington Transportation Secretary Loses Confirmation Vote

Washington State Department of Transportation
Agency photo of Washington Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson .

Washington Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson is out of a job. The Republican-led Washington Senate voted Friday afternoon not to confirm Peterson three years after she was appointed by Democratic Governor Jay Inslee.

The party line vote of 25 to 21 appears to be the first time since 1998 that the Senate has rejected a gubernatorial cabinet appointment. 

In a series of floor speeches, Republicans called Peterson a nice person, but said she's not up to the job of managing the agency at it begins to implement a 16-year, $16 billion transportation package approved by the legislature last year. 

"Being nice ain't enough, you have to be capable," said state Senator Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.

Minority Democrats quickly came to the defense of Peterson calling the vote not to confirm a "Friday afternoon surprise."

"I certainly hope that you do the right thing, that this doesn't turn into politics or anything, that we confirm her because we know she's a good person, that she's performed well as Secretary of Transportation," said an emotional state Senator Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Transportation Committee.

Democrats tried repeatedly to table the vote, to postpone it for two weeks and to send the confirmation back to the Transportation Committee, which last year unanimously voted to recommend Peterson's confirmation. Majority Republicans voted down those motions. 

Republicans aired a long list of complaints about the Washington Department of Transportation and Peterson as secretary. Topping the list was the agency's handling of the I-405 Express Toll Lanes, problems with the state's Good To Go tolling program and delays with the Seattle tunnel project.

"They're a nightmare," said Senate budget chair Andy Hill, R-Redmond, referring to the new 405 toll lanes. He also said he had been mistakenly billed by Good To Go. "This is a very, very serious decision, but I have no confidence that the agency is a position to fix the problems that they have without a change at the top."

Democrats in turn praised Peterson for her handling of the Skagit River bridge collapse and rapid rebuild in 2013 and her response to the Oso landslide in 2014, which took out a section of Hwy 530 and cut off access to the town of Darrington. 

"It is shameful that this body would consider not confirming such an incredible and tireless champion for mobility and for public safety in Washington state," said Senator Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island. 

In a statement Inslee's spokesperson Jaime Smith called the vote "a blatant misuse of the confirmation process for political purposes." He recruited Peterson from Oregon where she served as a transportation policy advisor to former Governor John Kitzhaber.  

At the time Inslee said Peterson "has the experience, creativity and leadership skills to help Washington build a transportation system for the 21st century."

The Washington Department of Transportation has nearly 6,600 employees and is responsible for maintaining 18,600 lanes miles, 3,700 bridges and the nation's largest ferry system. 

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."