TACOMA – More than $1 billion in construction projects, from storm water runoff systems costing a thousand of dollars to the second half of a medical research facility in Spokane costing some $37 million, were signed into law Monday.
Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the capital projects budget at Tacoma Community College, where the state will spend $39 million for a new Health Career Center. She called it a package of jobs that present “a way out of the recession.”
While Gregoire and other legislators were lauding the list of projects, state Sen. Mike Baumgartner was requesting a study of whether election-year politics helped determine where money went. Districts represented by Democratic senators and Democratic senators facing re-election this year received far more than the state average per district and more than their GOP counterparts, his analysis showed.
“I voted for the capital budget and it contains many worthwhile projects, but we need to make sure it’s not used for pork barrel projects in election years,” said Baumgartner, a first-term state senator from Spokane’s 6th District.
The capital budget is a combination of projects paid with bonds sold by the state with money from the general operating budget, and projects paid for by special funds collected for specific fees or taxes. The $37 million to complete the Washington State University – Spokane Biomedical and Health Sciences Building, for example comes mainly from bonds to be covered by an account fed by student fees.
Projects in Spokane include $3.2 million for a pedestrian and bike bridge in the Riverpoint university district near downtown Spokane; $3.1 million for the Extended Learning Center at Spokane Community College; $2.4 million for a public works reservoir and $2 million for infrastructure at Kendall Yards.
Other projects in Eastern Washington include a $45 million veterans nursing facility in Walla Walla; a $5 million WSU wine research center in Richland; $3.2 million for rail projects in Pasco; $2.9 million for public works projects in Asotin County; $900,000 for Pend Oreille PUD water quality and $500,000 for the Sacheen Lake Recreation Area restoration work; $750,000 for Colville water quality projects and $339,000 for the Sprague Emergency Response Center.
Baumgartner, who is not up for re-election this year but is running against U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, acknowledged that some projects such as the med school have an impact far outside the boundaries of a particular legislative district. The school is in the 3rd, represented in the Senate by Democrat Lisa Brown who faces re-election this year, but will “equally benefit” the nearby 6th, which he represents, Baumgartner said.
He wants the bipartisan Senate Ways and Means staff to examine spending patterns from previous capital budgets and compare how much was spent in districts where senators were up for re-election to see if this year’s pattern is an anomaly: “I’m not alleging partisan activity has gone on, I’m saying let’s study it.”
Gregoire and other legislators dismissed Baumgartner’s contention the projects could have been chosen to help the chances of senators facing re-election.
“Totally misplaced” was the phrase Gregoire used. One of the biggest projects, the veterans nursing home in Walla Walla, was a top priority of Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, and her husband, who is active in veterans affairs, she said.
Sen. Linda Evans Parlette of Wenatchee, the ranking Republican on the Senate panel that put together a list of construction projects, said she didn’t recall any discussion of where the projects were. Instead, committee members settled on an amount the state could safely spend, about $1 billion, then chose projects that were ready for construction and were the priorities of the colleges and other state agencies that have special funds set aside.
“I was quite shocked,” Parlette said of Baumgartner’s suggestion that politics played a role in determining projects in the capital construction budget. It was, she said, a fair and bipartisan process that includes new limits on state debt.
“It was written in a bipartisan way and it was passed in a bipartisan way,” Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, the Senate capital budget chairman, said.
Members of all four caucuses discussed the projects and “everything was agreed to by everybody, Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, the House chairman said. “This is not so much about the state Senate races as it is about federal Senate race.”