Editor’s note: Today’s editorials originally appeared in The Seattle Times and The Columbian. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
The nearly $10 billion transportation budget the Legislature approved by sweeping margins in April was labeled “bare-bones” by both parties’ Senate transportation leaders. However, taken with other transportation legislation now awaiting Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature, it sets in motion several transformative changes, including a worrisome financing plan, for how Washingtonians get around. For good and ill, the consequences will reverberate well into the future.
The spending measure, a slight increase over recent biennial transportation budgets, draws on fee increases but did not require adding to the gas tax. It includes a significant step toward the long-needed replacement of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River, reviving a project scuttled in 2013 by resistance to linking the bridge to the Portland light-rail system.
Leaders in Washington and Oregon should move ahead with getting a new bridge in place, which will inevitably require years of planning and negotiation. The budget bill’s appropriations for a management office to revive the Columbia River bridge project and preliminary design work signal lawmakers are again taking seriously the need to fix this regional choke point.
Closer to home, the Legislature wisely addressed Eastside commuters’ daily I-405 logjam through a widening project but used a problematic mechanism to cover the cost. That the project is paid for in part by extending tolled sections of the road may have been inevitable.
To bond out a public project is roughly similar to obtaining a mortgage, in that you obtain up-front money in exchange for making interest-augmented payments for years. Bipartisan backers of bonding the I-405 tolls say that the interest costs will be amply offset by economic benefits on two levels: opening the roads’ capacities for commercial use sooner, and avoiding the inflation-boosted cost of doing the work years down the road.
These may indeed carry some benefit, but bonding against toll revenue is a policy choice fraught with peril, and a bad habit for government to take up. It creates a justification to maximize toll revenues in perpetuity, which has been correctly labeled as a policy conflict for a Department of Transportation charged with cutting gridlock. It also increases the state’s debt-service obligations, which inhibits future construction capacity.
With leaders already working to build momentum to pass Washington’s next sweeping transportation package of new projects in a coming legislative session, sustainable financial planning has become an emergent and growing concern.
State budget process in need of transparency
More than a week after lawmakers wrapped up their 2019 session, the guess is that even political junkies are still wading through the $54.2 billion biennial budget passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Heck, we’re still trying to figure out where our taxes will be going over the next two years, and we get paid to do this.
Keeping up with the Legislature can be daunting for citizens interested in performing their civic duty by paying attention to the goings on in Olympia. That is particularly true when it comes to the budget, which typically is kept under wraps until the final days of the session.
That brings up the crux of this editorial: Legislative leaders should adjust how they do business, providing more transparency and more debate and more public engagement. Passing spending bills in the dark of night during the final days of the session is no way to run state government.
Yet that is what happened this year. In the end, lawmakers passed a dizzying array of tax increases in putting together the largest budget in state history. Despite a surge in state revenue created by a strong economy, the Legislature was unable to live within its means. The two-year budget, which goes into effect later this year, represents an 18% increase in spending over the current biennium.
Much of that increase goes to increases in salaries and benefits for public employees, whose contracts are negotiated between unions and the governor’s office before being sent to the Legislature for either an up-or-down vote. The public should be kept abreast of offers and counteroffers during negotiations with the unions. After all, it is our money that is on the table.
Among the benefits in the new contracts is an insurance benefit for part-time school workers, who will receive full medical coverage for working as little as 630 hours per year, according to The Seattle Times. That is the kind of budgetary item that should receive public scrutiny before the fact, rather than after.
Another item that received scant consideration is a sharp increase to the business and occupation tax paid by out-of-state banks. By raising the tax from 1.5% to 2.7%, lawmakers expect to increase revenue by $133 million over the next biennium.
Increasing the tax might or might not be a good idea. But introducing and passing it in the final 48 hours of the session, with little input from stakeholders, is an affront to the notion of responsible governance. “It’s an enormous new tax on a significant part of our economy; it deserves more careful deliberation before we put it into law,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, a chief Republican budget writer.
The bill was introduced as a “title-only” bill, which allows lawmakers to keep the details of proposed legislation a secret until they choose to reveal those details. That practice should be halted in the name of transparency.
Most important, legislative leaders should end the absurd practice of leaving the budget until the last minute. Negotiations take place throughout the session, but the results are not revealed to the public until the last minute. The state operating budget, which is devised during odd-year sessions, is the biggest issue facing lawmakers every other year. Therefore, it takes primacy among taxpayers and should be open to intense scrutiny and lengthy debate.