What the state might soon build Anemic tax collections in recent years are limiting the amount of money that Washington can borrow now, the result of constitutional restrictions. The state construction budget moving through the Legislature could borrow one-quarter to one-third less money than its predecessor.
Or it might not borrow anything at all, if some lawmakers follow through on their threats.
With less money to go around, projects have had to fight among themselves for backing. But plenty of South Sound projects have survived the process so far, winning funding in both House and Senate’s bipartisan proposals:
• Recreation grants including $1 million for expansion of Pleasant Glade Community Park in Lacey, $700,000 for a trail in Eatonville and $97,000 for a DuPont skate park.
• A $10.8 million renovation of The Evergreen State College’s Communications Laboratory Building and a $5 million renovation of a science lab there – although the Senate funded higher-education projects at lesser levels, counting on favorable construction bids.
• Projects at the community colleges in Olympia and Lakewood. South Puget Sound would spend $36 million to create a Learning Resource Center in a renovated building, and Clover Park would build a $24 million facility to house all of its health classes.
SKIRMISH OVER PROJECTS
The community colleges praised lawmakers for following the college system’s list of priorities in both budgets.
Gov. Chris Gregoire departed from the list to avoid funding growth projects such as South Puget Sound’s. She preferred renovations such as the $22 million upgrade of a science, math and technology building at Auburn’s Green River Community College. That one is also funded in the House and Senate budgets.
But her budget director, Marty Brown, said Gregoire is satisfied with the approach of lawmakers, who also found more money for the projects.
Lawmakers remain divided on whether to follow the recommendations of the state agency that ranks wildlife and conservation projects.
The House calls for spending $50 million on the projects. The Senate countered with just $20 million for the list drawn up by the state Recreation and Conservation Office and another $16 million in projects chosen from the list based on the number of jobs they would create – including a $500,000 expansion of the new Ashford County Park near Mount Rainier National Park and a $325,000 fishing-dock project on Thurston County’s Black Lake.
“Our focus was on doing things that put people to work now,” said Sen. Derek Kilmer, point man for Senate Democrats on the construction budget.
Environmentalists complained that approach promotes short-term construction jobs at the expense of projects to preserve land that might lead to more permanent farming, fishing or hunting jobs. They said legislators should follow the list they asked the state agency to create.
Under its alternative method, the Senate passed over House-funded projects including $820,000 for Nisqually State Park acquisitions, $361,000 to plant seeds for rare plants in several Thurston County locations and $1.3 million for land acquisition near Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve.
Construction projects paid for with state borrowing are popular with everyone, but that doesn’t keep them from becoming political footballs.
House Republicans have been using the bonds as a bargaining chip in debates over workers’ compensation, while senators are doing the same to pressure the House to pass a constitutional amendment limiting state borrowing.
Bonds are a popular hostage because even a minority of lawmakers can hold them up. Borrowing requires a 60 percent supermajority approval.
“It’s the one thing they have control over,” House Capital Budget Committee Chairman Hans Dunshee said, “so they’re thinking about all the things you can get for it at this point.”
Senate Republicans, though, are willing to oppose the bond projects and borrow no money if the debt issue isn’t addressed, Senate GOP Leader Mike Hewitt said.
“We’re willing to walk away from everything,” Hewitt said.
The authors of the Senate’s construction budget, Kilmer and Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, are preparing an alternative plan that uses only cash and borrows no money, but still funds K-12 construction and some other projects.
That gives them leverage to push for their proposed constitutional amendment, which passed the Senate unanimously and is awaiting action by Dunshee’s committee.
It would lower the state’s constitutional limits on debt from 9 percent of revenues to 7 percent, while ratcheting it back up in lean economic years. That restraint would reduce the money the state spends paying interest on its debt – currently at $2 billion – providing more money for operating expenses, everything from schools to health care.