Legislative Update: April 8, 2005
For years members of the House majority party have displayed a knack for overspending and seeking massive tax hikes to cover the difference, and their operating budget for 2005-07 shows they’ve still got the touch. Their $26.09 billion budget, fed by $507 million in taxes and other new revenue, outdoes the plans put on the table by the Senate and governor in the past three weeks. It was passed Thursday night by the Appropriations Committee and tonight by a majority in the House.
Two years ago the Republican-led Senate withstood House Democrats’ bid for $730 million in new taxes and eventually saw its no-new-taxes budget become law. Since then Washington’s economy has improved enough to make an additional $1.7 billion in revenue available for the 2005-07 budget. But that isn’t enough for the House Democrats, who want $404 million more courtesy of a new 60-cent cigarette tax, a new “death tax” and a 50-cent-per-liter liquor tax, yet describe their plan as “very modest.”
The House budget, developed without Republican input, is no more sustainable than the other two Democrat plans. It relies on so much money snatched from one-time sources such as dedicated funds: $470 million in all, on top of the taxes and other new revenue.
It was up to the House budget writers to follow the “Priorities of Government” process from 2003 and show the Senate and the governor that we again could have a balanced budget without new taxes. By going so far in the wrong direction, they’ve all but guaranteed Washingtonians will pay higher taxes. .
House transportation plan goes down the wrong road
The Legislature adopted a “nickel” package in 2003 that linked a 5-cent increase in the gas tax with billions of dollars worth of specific road projects. Today House Democrats introduced a transportation plan for 2005-07 that not only would raise the state gas tax by 9.5 cents over four years but impose vehicle weight fees, an additional $75 license fee for motor homes, raise other vehicle and drivers fees, and open the door to a staggering array of local-option taxes.
The House Democrat transportation package would let local governments seek additional taxes and fees to “backfill” for the loss of revenue from the abolished motor vehicle excise tax. Those local option taxes could include additional license fees of up to $30, a $2 monthly “housing unit tax” for renters and homeowners, an additional $50 “special property assessment” yearly per parcel for landowners and a monthly tax on businesses of up to $2 per employee, no matter whether or how the employee commutes.
The House proposal, like its Senate counterpart, addresses some crucial transportation issues, like replacing the Alaskan Way viaduct on the Seattle waterfront and the State Route 520 bridge over Lake Washington between Seattle and Bellevue. However, it lacks the emphasis on safety, preservation and accountability we would have advocated had we been fully involved in developing the plan.
The Senate transportation plan calls for an even bigger bite from taxpayers: a 15-cent gas tax increase, on top of the same menu of fee increases in the House package. It relies heavily on selling bonds to finance transportation projects – in fact, close to one-third of the money generated would be swallowed up by debt service, which isn’t the kind of efficiency taxpayers expect and deserve. But even the Senate ditched the local-option tax provisions in its package two days after its introduction.
Whether we are even asked to vote on a gas tax increase this session remains to be seen, considering those increases would be on top of the huge tax hikes sure to come via the state’s new operating budget.
Change in transportation governance on table
The final Senate bill approved by the House Transportation Committee before this week’s deadline culminated years of effort by Republicans to bring more accountability to governance of the state’s transportation programs and projects.
We successfully amended the bill to call for an end to the state Transportation Commission by July 2006. Created in 1977, the commission was appointed by the governor and in turn selected the secretary of transportation. The structure was intended to reduce the influence of politics on the state Department of Transportation, by putting distance between the governor and the secretary of transportation. Instead, it has made the transportation secretary less accountable to taxpayers and has us wondering whether the secretary is truly accountable to the commission.
As adopted by the Senate, Senate Bill 5513 would put the transportation secretary directly beneath the governor, which we support. But other changes in it would leave a lot of power in the governor’s hands while tying the Legislature’s hands.
As it came to us, the Senate bill would muffle the Legislature’s voice. The amendment we backed would not only protect our voice but also put a lot more focus on accountability. That would be a big step in the right direction in light of the billions of dollars already being invested in transportation programs and projects, and especially if a gas tax increase is adopted to generate billions more.
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