It's time once again for our state legislators to file dutifully into the lovely domed building in Olympia to pass laws to improve all our lives. This year they'll have to do it with less money than they had last year, thanks to I-695 and its author, Tim Eyman.
Republicans are heralding I-695's passage as proof that citizens want smaller government, and a number of Republican proposals to streamline taxation seek to ride on I-695's tailwinds. Representative Phil Fortunato of Black Diamond, who will serve on the transportation committee, wants to see a .6 percent sales tax cut. He would offset that with a gas tax hike to help fund transportation. Fortunato says he believes people would be willing to pay a bit more for gas if they realized that it would go for transportation projects and save them money in sales tax.
Fortunato and Republican Brian Thomas of Renton will also introduce a bill that prohibits the state from imposing a property tax on cars. Thomas says that I-695, as written, obliges the state to impose such a tax in lieu of car tab fees. He ventures to assert that his proposal conforms to the spirit of I-695 while opposing the letter of it.
Eyman's latest initiative, which seeks to shift funding from trains and buses to road construction, may also inspire rhetoric, adding fuel to the standard Republican anti-transit stance. Fortunato, for example, would like to see more state money go to roads. According to him it would be foolish for the state to contribute to Sound Transit's train-building effort under way in King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties because, he claims, that project will cost $100,000 per person per trip.
But some longtime legislators warn that I-695 will squeeze the government so hard that not even Eyman-inspired proposals can take flight. Mary Ann Mitchell of Federal Way, the Republican co-chair of the transportation committee, opines that any alterations of the tax structure such as the one Fortunato proposes are improbable, because such changes, per I-695, now require voter approval—something she doubts the public will be in the mood to give this year. And she says this is no time to adopt an anti-bus/train/ferry philosophy. Transportation dollars will be scarce, she continues, with spending confined to projects that are either already under contract, that get federal matching funds, or that enhance safety. Whether these projects are road-related or transit-related won't matter, she says. Mitchell isn't sure she has the resources even for these high-priority projects, though, and warns that she may need to tap the general fund, itself a limited budget intended to cover education and social services.
Surprisingly, House Democratic cospeaker Frank Chopp doesn't expect a fight between Democrats who want to fund schools and Republicans who want to fund roads. Education is a political sacred cow that nobody can really ignore, and Chopp says he's been getting Republican assurances that "public school cuts are off the table." He says Dems will be as creative as possible in finding money lost to I-695. For social services they might tap the $57 million surplus left from last year in the Health Services Account, for example. He says a possible transportation boost could come from bonding on gas tax revenues. And Democrats will be looking at Governor Locke's proposed budget, which juggles money around so that I-695 will have minimal short-term impact. Chopp also says that so far he doesn't expect much bickering with Republicans over whatever his party tries to do about the revenue loss.
Some political watchdogs, though, are more cynical about how this session will shape up. They predict fights and dire funding crises. Jim Kneeland, former press secretary for Governor Booth Gardner, warns that opportunists on both sides of the aisle will be "waiting for the train wreck" that might, to some Republicans' delight, paralyze the government or, as a few Democrats would like to see, turn voters against Eymanism and spell doom for the R's.