Lawmakers find many patches to cover hole in road budgets

Spending plans use transfers and other tools to offset $453M less in revenue due to Initiative 976

OLYMPIA — When the session began in January, lawmakers worried aloud about the financial blow to the state transportation budget delivered by Initiative 976.

Its passage created a $453 million hole and stirred lots of questions on how they planned to fill it.

This week, the answers arrived in the form of supplemental transportation budgets from the House and Senate that, for the most part, avoid cuts in bus service, delays in road projects and layoff of state employees.

And lawmakers hope a number of undertakings Gov. Jay Inslee put on pause after the election, to give the Legislature time to sort things out, can start moving forward again. That includes a project to improve the intersection of state routes 9 and 204 in Lake Stevens, home of the Senate Transportation Committee chairman.

“Our major goal was to get past this year … and make sure projects on pause are unpaused,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens. “We are not going to be able to do this next year.”

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the ranking Republican on the committee, agreed.

“I’m telling you right now we made this work because we did things you would not normally do to get us through this biennium,” he said.

Initiative 976 reduced revenues by $453 million with the single biggest hit incurred by the account used to support bus, rail, vanpool and other multimodal forms of transportation, as well as to assist state ferry operations. There were smaller hits to accounts for the state patrol and road projects.

Both legislative budgets plug part of the hole with a blend of shifts and transfers between accounts. Both redirect $82 million out of the 2015 Connecting Washington Account into the multimodal account, for example.

The Senate transportation budget released Tuesday also counts on accruing savings from projects that wound up costing less or from re-appropriations that didn’t get spent last bieenium. Also, expenditure authority for most agencies was reduced a little to free up additional one-time dollars.

In the House budget released Monday, there is a bit of pain too.

The House plan, for example, saves $25 million by pushing a half-dozen rail capital projects into the 2021-23 biennium. These are mostly on the east side of the state. Another $36 million is freed up by delaying various state public transportation program grants to the 2021-23 biennium.

Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he worked to “make the right kind of reductions.”

“This is a path to to get through this biennium,” he said. “We have bigger challenges coming in the next biennium.”

That’s when the effects of Initiative 976 — if it withstands a legal challenge — will be estimated to reach $684 million. On top of that, lawmakers face continuing obligations to fund the removal of barriers to fish passage and maintain roadways, while moving forward projects like building a new bridge on I-5 over the Columbia River.

Hobbs has been pushing for a 15-year, $17 billion transportation package that he calls Forward Washington to get it done. It suggests a gas tax hike, fees on carbon emissions and other revenue-raising ideas. It’s not got much traction this session or in 2019.

In the meantime, 32 House Democrats wrote to Hobbs and Fey last week to say that they see “passage of a clean fuel standard as a precondition to the passage of a transportation revenue package. As urgent as our transportation infrastructures needs are, the climate crisis is also urgent.”

Hobbs, they know, bottled up a clean fuel standard bill in his committee in 2019. That bill, which originated in the House, is back in his committee.

“We’ll have a hearing on Monday and see where it goes,” he said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos

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