OLYMPIA – Citing Depression-era public works spending as his inspiration, a House lawmaker on Monday proposed borrowing $3 billion to modernize schools and university buildings across the state.
“We’re going to fix schools, we’re going to create jobs, and hopefully get the economy turned around a bit with this,” said state Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish.
The plan, he said, would mean about 90,000 jobs. It would save an estimated $80 million a year in energy costs at public buildings. It would only take effect if voters approve it later this year.
How to pay off the bonds, however, is still being discussed. Dunshee wants to tap half the energy savings for part of the cost. But millions of dollars more would have to come out of current or new taxes.
Locally, Dunshee’s plan would raise $56 million for Spokane Public Schools, tens of millions more for other local districts, and a combined $64 million for Washington State University and Eastern Washington University.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has repeatedly said she’s open to a jobs-saving bond issue, although she hasn’t weighed in on Dunshee’s proposal. And Dunshee said he has the support of House Speaker Frank Chopp and can get enough votes to pass it in the House.
But a key state official was leery of the proposal. State Treasurer James McIntire said the plan is too big.
The debt, McIntire said, “would threaten our credit rating and would affect the rest of our investments in transportation and public infrastructure.
“We need to live within our means,” said McIntire. “Though we clearly have significant capital needs at our schools and universities, borrowed money is a limited resource that should be managed carefully.”
Dunshee said he expected some raised eyebrows.
“Does it stretch the limits of comfort? Yes,” he said. “But it also puts 90,000 jobs out there.”
At the business-backed Washington Policy Center, environmental policy director Todd Myers said he’s skeptical of the projected energy savings. Past legislation promoting “green schools” didn’t reduce energy costs, he said, and in some cases, the bills were higher afterward. Myers argues that the Legislature should focus on long-term prosperity, rather than short-term jobs. “We want to create productive jobs, not make-work jobs,” he said.
Supporters of Dunshee’s plan include state schools Superintendent Randy Dorn, whose office has compiled a list of billions of dollars worth of work needed on schools across the state. The work includes asbestos abatement, electrical work, security changes, floors, heating and cooling systems, and roof repairs.
Even the smallest school district would get at least $100,000 under Dunshee’s plan, Dorn said.
Cash-strapped districts are trying to preserve dollars for their operating budgets, he said.
“And guess what? Maintenance of buildings goes down,” Dorn said.
Dunshee said the plan would cost about $210 million a year to pay off over 20 years. Some $40 million of that would come out of energy savings. (Schools and universities would keep the remaining $40 million in expected savings each year.)
But the bulk of the costs would likely come from taxes. For the first two years, the additional sales tax on the billions of dollars in projects could cover the debt payments, Dunshee said. Or lawmakers could ask voters to approve a tax increase.
Either way, he said, the need is there.
“It’s not like we’re building pyramids here. This is fixing schools,” he said.
Public spending like the GI Bill and Works Progress Administration led to changes that left lasting benefits, he said.
“There are those who would sit on their hands and do nothing,” he said. “That was sort of the (Herbert) Hoover response. I think we need to do more.”