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Lawmakers Hit Bumps On Road To Repair Election Promises May Mean Cold Shoulder For State’s Badly Needed Road Improvements

The politicians say they’re finally ready to fill the potholes.

But somehow, an overflowing pot of money keeps getting in the way.

Deteriorating roads, skyrocketing population and cash-strapped cities and counties have combined to make Washington’s street and highway network among the worst in the country. Experts recommended investing more than $100 billion over 20 years to repair, upgrade and build roads, bridges and ferries, but the state currently expects to collect half that.

As state lawmakers prepare to convene a short legislative session Monday, they’re already colliding over how to pump more dollars into this tattered transportation system.

The stumbling block: Where to incorporate the windfall from Washington’s blistering economy?

The state is doing so well analysts expect to have an extra $865 million in the bank - enough to run neighboring Idaho’s entire state government for half a year.

But in an election year when the Democratic governor and majority Republican legislators share many priorities, lawmakers are divided on how to distribute the proceeds of prosperity.

One group of Democrats suggested a giveaway plan, in which they’d return about half the surplus to taxpayers by simply writing a check to every man, woman and child in the state. Estimated benefit: About $70 per person.

Gov. Gary Locke has big plans of his own, proposing to put millions into education, salmon recovery and stiffer criminal penalties, while setting a chunk aside for a future recession.

Locke also wants an 11-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase over five years to help raise $2.4 billion for transportation. He plans to offset that with a cut in the tax drivers pay to license cars and trucks. Average first-year impact to motorists: $5 in savings.

This approach is fair, Locke said, because it directly taxes those who most use the roads and uses a money source that doesn’t dry up when there is no surplus. Locke also said he would return about $300 million over five years to cities and counties.

GOP leaders, too, have ideas to improve students’ reading skills, get tough on sex offenders and cut the vehicle license tax - a plan many insist Locke pirated, altered and made his own. And they insist it can be done without raising taxes.

While Republicans have no detailed transportation plan yet, they say Locke should consider his gas tax hike idea as dead as the Pinto.

Voters simply won’t accept a tax increase when the state’s checking account is so far in the black, said Sen. Majority Leader Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue.

“We’ve got $865 million of other people’s money in our jeans now,” McDonald said, adding lawmakers can’t raise taxes and “pass the straight-face test.”

The 60-day session starting Monday provides legislators with a chance to handle supplemental budget issues for the second half of the 1997-1999 biennium.

Locke calls 1998 a time to deal with the issues “that cannot wait.”

“We can’t tell our salmon to stay out to sea another year or two.”

With the federal government likely to list as many as seven salmon species as threatened or endangered in coming years, Locke is proposing hiring more than 90 people to do everything from watershed management to farm inspection to habit assessment.

Locke also wants to start a volunteer reading program, hand an additional $6 million to local school districts, dedicate $2 million to improve low-income housing for farm workers and provide cost-share health insurance for poor children.

He proposes about $245 million in tax cuts, including incentives to businesses that train workers, provide child care or invest in troubled rural areas.

Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, has a narrower view of the session, calling it a time to correct budgeting mistakes, handle emergencies, seize one-time opportunities and generally “lay the foundation for the future.”

He wants to stash most of the budget surplus and build the state’s savings account to $1 billion by 2003. The veteran lawmaker said he knows that in Olympia, rainy days always return.

“People don’t carry you off on their shoulders for saving their future, but it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

West also will continue his push to merge Eastern Washington and Washington State universities, a prospect Locke has not ruled out.

The governor appointed a study committee and gave members until Feb. 15 to recommend options to boost enrollment at struggling Eastern.

Like Locke, Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient, has plans for salmon, including proposals to tighten rules governing salmon predators.

Republicans, whose budget proposals will come after the start of the session, say this year they’ll focus on “accountability.”

They want - as Locke does - to reduce drivers’ legal blood-alcohol limit from 0.1 percent to .08 percent and make it easier for authorities to seize drunken drivers’ vehicles and limit deferred prosecution.

House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee, also wants to financially punish school districts who graduate students who can’t yet read, and tighten the security of group homes for juvenile offenders. Ballard also supports re-worked proposals to ban gay marriages.

Lawmakers also will face a handful of battles not of their own making.

A proposed initiative to end most affirmative action programs at the state and local levels is expected to go before lawmakers next month after signatures on petitions are verified.

Republican leaders - who all support the initiative - say they’ll let their caucus decide later whether to approve it or send it the ballot. The governor, who opposes it, has no veto power in this case.

The state Supreme Court last week overturned voter-approved term limits on legislators. Ballard, a seven-term representative, supports sending some form of term limits back to the ballot in a legally acceptable form.

Prompted by changes looming at the national level, leaders in both parties also claim they’re eager to deregulate the power industry. But they’re already pointing fingers at one another and warning of a stalemate.

House Minority Leader Marlin Appelwick, D-Seattle, maintains Republicans are afraid to tackle deregulation, fearing they might jeopardize the state’s power rates - among the lowest in the country.

Ballard insists it’s a complex issue that demands bipartisanship, but that Democrats already are trying to cast Republicans as the party that wants to monkey with low rates.

“They’re saying ‘this is the issue we’re going to defeat the Republicans with in the coming election,”’ Ballard said.

Both sides acknowledge inaction could have dire consequences.

Federal changes could increase demand for the Northwest’s cheap power from utilities in California and elsewhere. The result could be higher rates within the region. Washington officials want to have an alternative system in place before that happens.

“I think it behooves the state of Washington to move on this,” Locke said.

One thing all sides agree on: The session should end in exactly 60 days.

“The word is ‘go in and do no harm,”’ said Rep. Larry Crouse, R-Spokane. “Get in and get out, and do it with as little damage as possible.”

, DataTimes


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