After dire warnings about the devastation of Initiative 976, dramatic pain may not be felt in Washington state transportation plans after all.
At least not yet.
State lawmakers this week released their proposed transportation budgets, which don’t feature severe cuts to offset the nearly $500 million in lost revenue during this budget cycle from I-976. Instead, lawmakers suggest shifting around some costs and revenue for now.
That leaves any big changes for the 2021 legislative session, when cuts from I-976 will be even deeper but legislators were already likely to consider new taxes for a laundry list of transportation needs across the state.
I-976, the measure to cut car-tab taxes, passed a statewide vote in November, but remains on hold because of a legal challenge. State lawmakers are budgeting as if it will ultimately be upheld.
“Voters get to pass the initiative. Our job is to make the state transportation system run,” said Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, who chairs the House Transportation Committee.
The House and Senate proposals, which both have bipartisan backing, rely in part on underspending — that is, money expected to be spent in existing budgets that was not actually spent because the projects are behind schedule or for other reasons. Eventually, some of those costs will come due.
“The things that we did are not things you can do every biennium or every year,” said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, ranking Republican on the Senate Transportation Committee. “You just can’t.”
Pending approval from Gov. Jay Inslee, the budgets would allow most of the dozens of projects put on hold after the initiative passed to be restarted, lawmakers said. A spokeswoman for Inslee said he was still reviewing the budgets but can restart projects once the Legislature reaches a deal.
The House and Senate will work to reconcile their proposals before the Legislature is set to adjourn March 12.
Lawmakers say they attempted to protect transit for people with disabilities, one of the areas hit hard by I-976. In this two-year budget cycle, I-976 cuts would amount to only about 7% of all transportation revenues, but the state’s multimodal account, which funds various transit programs, would lose 63% of its revenues, according to budget documents.
“If you’re a disabled person and you need to get to your appointments … by god I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that that transportation is available to you,” Fey said. “And if it means cutting in the future some highway projects to do it, I’m going to do it.”
Both the House and Senate budgets would shift some costs for state ferries and the Washington State Patrol to an account fed by gas taxes, and both proposals fund some removal of culverts that block fish passage, a looming cost lawmakers expect to reckon with for years.
The Senate version includes “trigger” language that would restore some funding if I-976 is struck down by the state Supreme Court.
The House proposal does not fully fund certain regional transit grants, delaying them to future years. The Senate proposal does not fully fund a previously passed green-transportation effort that included electric vehicle tax breaks and other programs. The Senate budget also relies on about $25 million from the state operating budget, lawmakers said.
Both proposals assume the ferry MV Elwha, with its mounting maintenance costs, would be retired, leaving only one other ferry certified to make international crossings from Anacortes to Sidney, British Columbia.
The ferry system is struggling with an aging fleet and currently has only one reserve boat, the MV Sealth, which is “in use pretty much all of the time,” said Washington State Ferries spokesman Ian Sterling.
New taxes for transportation were already likely to be a focal point for Democrats next year and could get new traction among the party if I-976 is ultimately upheld in court.
The need for funding to preserve highways and bridges, among other needs, “was a problem before I-976, but this made it a lot worse,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, the Senate Transportation Committee chair who is pitching a carbon fee and other taxes to pay for transportation projects.
Republicans praised the immediate budget proposals, while warning against future tax hikes.
“This initiative forced us to take a hard look at the budget, which is something we should be doing anyway,” said Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee. Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, called it “the silver lining” of I-976.
Republicans say the state should use money it is already bringing in from taxes on car and truck sales to fund transportation needs. That money now goes to other needs. Democrats warn that would strip money from priorities such as education.