Lawmakers who once issued dramatic predictions about the harm of Tim Eyman’s latest tax-slashing initiative found relatively quiet ways to patch budget holes this year, leaving bigger fights for next year.
State legislators nearly unanimously approved a transportation budget Wednesday that avoids significant cuts to road projects or transit service.
The $10.4 billion budget relies largely on money in existing budgets but not yet spent, “a little bit of budget magic,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.
Legislators warned those tricks won’t last forever. “Next year we’re going to have some serious problems,” Hobbs said.
The budget goes to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.
Initiative 976, passed by voters in November, would cut state and local car-tab taxes, offering vehicle owners a tax break but blowing a hole in transportation funding, particularly non-roads funds that pay for things like transit for people with disabilities.
The initiative hasn’t taken effect yet because of a legal challenge, but lawmakers said they needed to budget assuming it would eventually take effect.
Lawmakers said they believe the budget will allow for resumption of projects put on hold by Inslee in the wake of I-976. Those projects include an additional lane planned for northbound Interstate 5 between Seneca Street and Olive Way and a portion of the North Spokane Corridor.
“Particularly with what we’re seeing now, it’s going to be important that those jobs be there,” said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, apparently referring to the ongoing spread of the novel coronavirus and the economic fallout.
The budget deal includes some grant funding for transit for people with disabilities and for green-transportation programs. It did not fund repairs to the MV Elwha, effectively retiring the aging ferry. The boat is in need of significant maintenance work so retiring it helps cut costs but also further stretches the taxed state ferry fleet.
The budget does not include the “trigger” language floated by the state Senate, which would have restored some spending if I-976 were struck down by the state Supreme Court.
The budget this year won nearly unanimous bipartisan support across the House and Senate. Next year could be less cordial if lawmakers focus on a new tax package to fund projects around the state.
Hobbs has pushed a carbon fee and other ideas as part of a package he calls Forward Washington. Some Democrats say a low-carbon fuel standard is a “precondition” to a new tax package, but Hobbs has been skeptical of that policy.