Legislators scuttle governor’s proposal for regional ferry control

  • By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
  • Friday, February 4, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

OLYMPIA — Remember Gov. Chris Gregoire talking about wanting to put control of the state ferry system in the hands of a bunch of counties?

Well, you can forget about it. Lawmakers disliked it so much they won’t even introduce a bill drafted by the governor spelling out her idea.

Gregoire’s advisers delivered the bill to House and Senate leaders a week ago and not one lawmaker stepped up to pilot it through the Legislature, effectively sinking it without even the courtesy of a public hearing.

“It’s in my drawer. It’s not coming out,” declared state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, the chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee who’s been opposed since Gregoire first mentioned it.

It’s suffering a similar fate in the House, where some representatives in districts with ferry service took a look and said no thanks.

“It has too many critical flaws,” said Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds. “Because the governor cannot sponsor a bill, it means her idea is dead on arrival.”

Wednesday morning Gregoire said she’s neither surprised nor offended.

“I didn’t really expect anyone to (introduce it), not when it is something that big and that bold,” she said.

Gregoire envisioned an authority that covers the nine counties served by ferries, including Snohomish and Island. Its board would have had elected and appointed members. Funding would have been from fares, state aid and taxes levied within the district.

From the outset, state lawmakers blasted it as simply passing on the problem to the counties. Gregoire viewed it as the best way of keeping Washington State Ferries financially afloat.

Fares only cover about 70 percent of the ferries’ operating costs, so each year there is money diverted from road projects statewide to make up the difference. Roughly $81 million is transferred in the current budget, and the governor’s proposed budget for the 2011-13 period assumes a $44 million diversion — even after a 10 percent fare increase and fewer daily sailings.

“I was very clear from the very beginning. I said if you don’t like this, fine by me, just give me a solution,” she said. “I’ve made my point and they are hard at work.”

Before delivering the bill, Gregoire did meet with leaders of the counties she tapped for the district.

“Their initial reaction was kind of cold. They left there saying we’re committed to finding a solution,” she said. “That’s what I’m trying to make happen here.”

Snohomish County Council Chairman Dave Somers said he felt most of those at the table were open to the notion of a district if there were a commitment for state funds and a promise to leave ferries in the state highway system.

“We’re going to continue the discussion,” he said. “You’ve got to do something.”

Gregoire also met recently with the ranking Democratic and Republican lawmakers on transportation to hear what they’re working on to cover the shortfall.

Haugen and Clibborn are pushing to change elements in employees’ collective bargaining agreements that might net a few million dollars in savings.

“I told them that’s not enough for me. Don’t think you go home with that and call it a day,” Gregoire said. “We’re not going to do it on the backs of ferry workers.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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