OLYMPIA – Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the state’s 2011-’13 transportation budget Monday and issued a warning to the Legislature to hurry up on other spending plans for the next biennium that seem to be hostage to disagreements between the two chambers.
Agree on a general operating budget “no later than the end of the week,” she said, or risk running out of time for the special session. If that happens, Gregoire said she’d let legislators go home and stay there until they can strike a deal on the operating budget and a list of other proposals creating a roadblock to compromises.
“Things are not moving as fast as I think they should be,” a clearly unhappy Gregoire said after signing the transportation bill.
That bill was a model of bipartisanship, with committee leaders from both parties and both chambers attending the signing while committee staff and department heads smiled for the cameras. It spends $5.6 billion on road, bridge, rail and ferry projects over the next two years, providing paychecks for an estimated 30,000 workers. Line items for Eastern Washington projects include $72 million for the North Spokane Corridor, $15.8 million to widen Interstate 90 in the Spokane Valley, and $12 million to replace the Keller Ferry.
But the state will exhaust most of the money for big projects from gas tax increases approved by voters in 2003 and 2005, with some big projects like the North Spokane Corridor unfinished and others like a new bridge between Vancouver and Portland unstarted, Gregoire said. It also will be short of money to maintain the roads it has, and needs a better way to support the ferry system.
Voters will be asked to approve more taxes – possibly an extra gasoline tax, possibly some other system – in 2012, she said. Before that happens, however, a new Transportation Advisory Commission will hold hearings around the state. After signing the transportation budget, she announced she was appointing the top Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate transportation committees to the advisory commission, and all agreed some increase in taxes or fees will have to be put to voters next year.
Agreement is lacking on the much larger general operating budget, which remains stalled after 105 days of the regular session and 21 days of a special session. The biggest stumbling blocks, however, are not the budget itself but issues like changes to the state’s workers’ compensation system and the Disability Lifeline, as well as a reduction in the state’s debt limit for bonds.
House Democrats have so far refused to vote on a Senate bill allowing voluntary lump-sum settlements for injured workers over age 55. The Senate “has made it clear they want a workers’ comp bill” before a vote on the budget, Gregoire said.
Part of the problem has been the pace of the special session, which has seen one chamber or the other in recess most days, she said. “It’s very hard to negotiate when you have only one house here at a time.”