26 Dec Airo Security Declares: Washington’s short legislative session will focus on transp
Short legislative sessions in Washington state are designed to be relatively quick and painless. But with a huge hole ripped into the transportation budget with the passage of Initiative 976, lawmakers could be asked to tackle a complex funding debate in 2020.
In a typical short year, legislators are asked to fill any gaps in the biennial budget (passed during the previous year’s longer session), tackle the most pressing issues with legislation and then recess within 60 days.
However, in November, voters approved Initiative 976, which eliminated many vehicle fees and lowered car tabs to $30, creating an immediate shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars that was expected to come in during fiscal year 2020.
While the initiative is being challenged in court and not being enforced until that process is finished, lawmakers will still need to evaluate how the state pays for many of its transportation and road improvements.
On top of that, Gov. Jay Inslee announced his plans to use this supplemental budget year to further address homelessness and expand early education, and other groups hope to build on major climate change legislation passed in 2019, leaving lawmakers with a lot to look at by March.
Still, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D-Spokane) is confident everything that needs to be done can get accomplished on time; Billig points out that the Democratic majority managed to push the Legislature to complete both the 2018 and 2019 sessions on time.
“The last two years have been very busy, productive legislative sessions, really across all policy areas, including climate, education, higher education, behavioral health, voting access,” Billig says. “In contrast, I think this session will be a true short session, with a lower volume of bills.”
Here’s a look at a few things different groups hope to see the Legislature tackle in 2020.
The courts have placed I-976 on hold while the state Attorney General’s Office defends the will of voters, who passed the measure to lower car tabs to $30 per year. While that case shakes out, with jurisdictions like King County, Garfield County Transportation Authority, the Association of Washington Cities and others fighting the initiative, dozens of state transportation projects have been put on hold.
“Even though the injunction was granted, the state is putting that money into a reserve account. We really can’t spend that, because if we were to spend that money and then lose the case, we’d have to pay all of it back,” Billig says. “So the important part out of all of that is the Legislature is going to have to write a budget that assumes that 976 money is not available.”
That could mean cutting $450 million from the transportation budget for this year, Billig says. In the long run, the Office of Financial Management estimates state funding could take a $1.9 billion hit over the next six years, and local jurisdictions could lose another $2.3 billion in that time.
Among the list of state transportation projects that have been put on hold is the North-South Freeway in Spokane, which is funded by both gas tax revenue (unaffected by I-976) and money from vehicle weight fees, which were eliminated under the initiative.
Billig says it’s good that Inslee hit pause on many state projects, leaving lawmakers with all options on the table when they go to Olympia in January.
“For instance, we might say we want to not cut the 70 state troopers that would have to be cut if we just didn’t do anything,” Billig says. “Instead we’d like to delay some other things going on with transportation.”
Also at risk if I-976 is implemented without changes are bus services for the elderly and people with disabilities, which Billig hopes to protect, as well as local funding that Spokane receives from its Transportation Benefit District to help with residential paving projects.
“In the city of Spokane, I-976 did not pass, so I don’t think that the people of my district are saying that they wanted this,” Billig says. “But to look at it from a statewide perspective, it’s very much still respecting the will of the voters to take the reduced revenues and make sure that we are spending them in the smartest way.”
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