Washington Policy Blog

Light rail on 520 means more traffic for Seattle, which is already the most congested city in America

April 12, 2010 in Blog

The preferred alternative to replace the 520 bridge contains a total of six lanes and adds a new HOV lane in each direction. According to the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) on 520, there will be about 20,000 cars per day in the new HOV lanes.

Recently, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has been making a lot of noise about replacing the new HOV lanes with light rail. In a press release, McGinn adds:

"We only have one chance to get this right," said McGinn. "If we continue on with the state's current plan, then we will miss that chance. And that would be too bad—because this report shows that it is possible. We can design 520 from the outset to include light rail.  The question i!
s whether or not the leadership exists to make that vision a reality."

What McGinn fails to tell us is that replacing the HOV lanes with light rail will dump about 20,000 additional cars into the four general purpose lanes, which will bring the total traffic volume to about 131,000 cars per day. According to the SDEIS, this is about the same amount of cars (135,000) that would be in the four existing lanes in 2030 under a no build option, which the WSDOT estimates will result in a 10-16 percent increase in traffic congestion.

Traffic in downtown already makes Seattle the most congested city in America but Seattle falls to ninth worst wit!
h traffic on its surrounding highways. McGinn's light rail!
plan on 520 will certainly move Seattle in the direction of also having the most congested highways in America. But maybe that is his intention.

Did we say "temporary" tax?

April 12, 2010 in Blog

A world record may have been broken yesterday - the shortest time in recorded history for lawmakers to decide a "temporary" tax should be permanent.

Special Session Goes Retro With $850 Million Debt Proposal

April 11, 2010 in Blog

The Senate is set to take up HB 2561, a bill that would create $850 million in new debt to pay for energy retrofits at schools in Washington. Sponsor Hans Dunshee says the bill has been modified to address concerns about the impact this new debt would have on the state's bond rating.

Those changes, however, won't be unveiled until the hearing. The Tacoma News Tribune reports that Dunshee is "declining to give details until the new plan is rolled out Sunday afternoon at a public hearing." The Special Session is set to end Tuesday, so if the bill is to pass before the deadline, the bill's hidden details will have to be approved today.

Beyond the concerns about transparency, the bill itself is unlikely to deliver the promised results. When it is was released earlier this year, Rep. Dunshee claimed on the House Democrats' blog that it would create:

* 38,000 new jobs
* $190 million in energy savings every year
* Better, longer-lasting schools
* It pays for itself

Our research shows these claims are not based in actual experience.

First, the energy savings estimates are based on a small version of the program that has been around for a decade. Those energy retrofits, however, have not been audited, so projections are based on an estimate of savings, not actual results. The GA estimates first-year savings and then simply extrapolates over the life of the project. As we've noted with green schools, these projections can be wide of the mark and, without audits, they are of questionable reliability. Supporters of the bill claim the numbers are "guaranteed" by the contractor. But the performance is confirmed only for the first year. Contractors are willing to monitor beyond that initial year, but will charge addition fees to do so. An amendment to extend the requirement for audits beyond the first year was killed in the House Capital Committee.

Second, the return on investment of these projects varies widely. Some pay for themselves in about eight years (based on GA's projections), while others take more than 50 years. Some actually increase energy use. For instance, in South Kitsap School District, funding was used to fix a failing HVAC system. The good news is that the school now has air conditioning. The bad news is that the school's energy bill increased. This is certainly an improvement in the quality of the school but basing budget projections on savings from these projects is faulty.

It is also unclear how the bill pays for itself. Rep. Dunshee told the Capital Committee that the State would make no effort to recover the projected energy savings. The state provides the money to the districts, but any energy savings are kept by the district.

Finally, an audit of a similar federal program found a number of problems. The Inspector General of the Department of Energy found, when examining a subset of the projects, that "the Department may risk spending up to $17.3 million more than it will realize in energy savings." They also found that contractors overestimated the savings from projects, increasing the fees they receive, which are calculated based on energy savings. You can read the whole report here.

For more about this, you can read the Policy Note we released last year about this issue called Mixed Results from Green Buildings and Energy Efficiency Contracts.

There are opportunities for the state and school districts to receive savings by upgrading equipment, but not all projects are created equal and some have simply failed to live up to their promise. Ensuring the state gets what it pays for is why we offered the Climate Change Accountability Act (C2A2) this year. Heard in the House Ecology and Parks Committee, the bill would have required contractors on state projects to certify energy savings, refunding a portion of their fee to the state if energy targets were missed. Many of the same contractors who will likely testify in favor of the bill today, testified against the increased monitoring and accountability requirements of C2A2.

So much for 24 hours to review the tax plan

April 10, 2010 in Blog

Rumor has it House Republicans will allow House Democrats to waive the required 24 hour waiting period before votes are taken on the tax increase plan announced at 1:30 today

This means the 112 page tax bill could be voted on this evening. 

Regardless of how one plans to vote, it is very disappointing that state representatives not only believe they don't need at least a day to study the details of a massive tax increase, but that their constituents don't deserve this common sense courtesy either. 

It is time for constitutional transparency protections for citizens

In the meantime, happy speed reading for those with nothing better to do t!
oday.

UPDATED: 112 page, $794 million tax increase deal finally made public

April 10, 2010 in Blog

At long last the details of the Democrats' tax increase plan is available for public and lawmaker consumption. Here is the 112 page, $794 million tax increase bill.

Because the House last night finally agreed to the Senate's March 25 request for a conference committee, the 112 page bill will not be subject to amendment and must sit on the bar for 24 hours before action is taken. This means that lawmakers can only vote yes or no on the various taxes proposed and not offer changes.

When considering the fact Democratic leadership was already negotiating the details outside of the conference committee process, one is left to wonder if they only reason the House finally agreed last night to appoint conference members was for the sole reason of invoking Rule 20 (SCR 8400) to prohibit amendments from being offered. 

Since a conference committee was ultimately formed, Rule 17's public notification requirement was triggered. At 8:53 this morning the public notice went out that the conference committee would meet at 1:30 today - a full four and half hours notice for those wanting to attend.

Here is the Senate Democrats' blog coverage of that hearing. Unfortunately the meeting took place in the Senate Rules room which is not covered by TVW cameras.

It appears the House will vote on the tax increases first.

UPDATE (3:54 p.m.) n>

The $794 million includes taxes raised in other bills. href="http://hdcadvance.blogspot.com/2010/04/this-is-it.html" target="_blank">Details here.

520 traffic congestion would grow 10-16% under McGinn's plan

April 9, 2010 in Blog

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has proposed to replace the HOV lanes planned for the new 520 bridge with a transit-only configuration, like light rail. The Mayor even commissioned a study to see what it would take to make the new bridge light rail compatible.

Missing from this debate is the negative impact eliminating the HOV lanes would have on traffic. The City's study generally concludes that traffic efficiency would be degraded, but doesn't really say by how much.

The current structure only has four lanes, which according to WSDOT accommodates about 115,000 cars per day. The Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) on 520 shows the preferred six lane option, which would add two HOV lanes (one in each direction)!
would carry about 131,000 cars by 2030. 20,100 of these cars would be HOVs.

By eliminating the HOV lanes, traffic volumes would increase in the remaining four lanes by 18 percent, for a total of about 131,000 cars per day.

This is about the same number of cars (135,000) that would be in the same four lanes under the no-build option found in the SDEIS. Under this scenario, the SDEIS estimates the following will happen:

Daily traffic demand across Lake Washington would increase by 17 percent on SR 520, 34 percent on I-90, and 29 percent on SR 522.

On SR 520, morning peak period demand would increase 10 percent and afternoon peak period demand would increase 16 percen!
t compared to today. Peak period congestion would be worse tha!
n today.

By the year 2030, I-405 congestion will back up onto SR 520 and have substantial effects on travel times between I-5 and SR 202.

Getting at the heart of Net Neutrality and FCC decision

April 8, 2010 in Blog

A good, and eye-opening debate between Public Knowledge's Gigi Sohn and NetCompetition's Scott Cleland in the wake of the D.C. District Court's decision that the FCC does not have the statutory authority to impose Net Neutrality regulations on Internet Service Providers (like Comcast, AT&T et. al.).

Property tax increase proposed for community colleges

April 8, 2010 in Blog

What will they think of next?

Today Representative Hasegawa introduced HB 3220: Providing a permanent and stable source of funding for the state community colleges.

According to the bill: 

"Section 3. A community college district under chapter 28B.50 RCW may impose a regular property tax levy in an amount not to exceed twenty-five cents per thousand dollars of assessed value. A community college district must use any taxes collected under this section for the purposes of chapter 28B.50 RCW. Taxes collected under this section may not be used to supplant existing state funds currently allocated to a community college district. For the purposes of this section, "existing state funds" means the amount of funds allocated by the state to the community college district for the fiscal year prior to the fiscal year in which th!
e property tax levy authorized under this section is first imposed."

Meanwhile, a mini-mystery is brewing over the apparent tax deal reached by House and Senate Democrats. Earlier this morning the House Democrats posted on their blog the details of the agreement.

That post has since been removed.

Austin Jenkins has the details:

"I'm amused this morning that the
House Democratic caucus is obfuscating. The  tax plan is out - published here
and here
- and it was even released by
House Democrats via Twitter, but quickly quashed. Melinda McCrady with
House Democrats says the Tweet was a mistake and the tax package isn't finished
yet, thus she has denied my request for a copy. Perhaps the powers that be are
still tweaking some of the finer points of the tax package, but the gist
of the plan is hardly a secret anymore. You gotta love the games politicians
and their staff play."

Stay tuned.

Michelle Rhee achieves great leap forward for D.C. students

April 8, 2010 in Blog

After two years of rancorous bargaining, Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the D.C. school district, reached a tentative five-year agreement with the Washington Teachers' union, which still must be ratified by rank and file union members.

State Supreme Court: "Must" means may

April 8, 2010 in Blog

This morning the state Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of SEIU vs. Gregoire. At issue was the Governor's failure to included specific funding in her budget proposal as required by law. In a 5-4 ruling the court essentially said the Governor has total discretion to do what she wants and the word "must" means may.

In a strongly worded dissent, Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen wrote:

The word “must” in RCW 74.39A.300(1) is mandatory and requires the governor to include requests in the budget document submitted to the legislature for funds to implement compensation and fringe benefit provisions in CBAs entered into pursuant to RCW 74.39A.270 when the prerequisites of RCW 74.39A.300(2)(a) and .300(2)(b) are satisfied. Subsection (b) is satisfied if the request!
reflects the binding decision of an arbitration panel reached under RCW 74.39A.270 (which directs that the mediation and interest arbitration provisions in RCW 41.56.430 through .470 and RCW 41.56.480 apply; RCW 41.56.480 contains the description of “binding decision” for purposes of RCW 74.39A.300(2)(b)).

This court should have granted the petition for a writ of mandamus requiring the governor to submit a revised budget document to the legislature that included a request for funds to implement the compensation and fringe benefit provisions of the CBA entered into under RCW 74.39A.270. Absent its having done so in time for its decision to be effective for the present dispute, it should nonetheless have reached this conclusion to provide guidance in future disputes where there is a question concerning a mandatory duty to include an item as part of the proposed budget that the governor submits to the legislature. At a minimum, this court should not grant the govern!
or unlimited discretion to submit a proposed budget without re!
gard to mandatory duties and should not inject itself into policy questions that are the province of the executive and legislative branches of government.

This isn't the first time a mandatory requirement has been interpreted to be discretionary. According to RCW 43.88.110 (7) the Governor "shall" issue across-the-board cuts at anytime a deficit is projected. The Governor, however, has interpreted "shall" to mean she has the discretion to but not requirement to.

As to the issue in the SEIU lawsuit, the Governor ultimately should have the flexibility to build her own budget as she sees fit. The preferable option, however, would have been to request the law be changed – not to ignore it.  

Based on today's majority ruling, the words of a law requiring a specific action apparently don't have any meaning nor do those !
elected officials charged with a mandatory requirement have a duty to comply.

Tax deal reached?

April 8, 2010 in Blog

It appears Senate and House Democrats have come to an agreement on a $801 million tax increase, or at least their leadership has.

The Everett Herald has posted what is being called the "Go Home Proposal." Here are the details (not all taxes listed):

  • Three year B&O services tax increase to 1.8% = $245.9 million
  • Three year beer tax increase of 50 cents per gallon = $57.8 million
  • Three year pop tax increase of 2 cents per 12 oz. = $38.10 million
  • Dot foods case = $154.7 million
  • Tobacco products = $101.4 million
  • Business nexus changes = $82.4 million
  • Sales tax on bottled water = $35.3 million
  • Sales tax on candy and gum = $29 million
  • Lottery marketing = $15 million
  • Convention center = $10 million
  • DOR regulatory power increase (Tax avoidance) = $8.2 million
  • Property management B&O = $6.9 million

The question remaining for taxpayers, will Democrats give the public the opportunity to weigh in on those new taxes being proposed, which have never been subject to a public hearing this year, or will they instead continue to cut the people out of the process

Attempt to squelch debate

April 7, 2010 in Blog

The Seattle Weekly’s coverage of last week’s unfortunate accident at the Anacortes oil refinery is really poor.  In an article written by Laura Onstot, entitled “Before Fatal Fire, Tesoro Fought Paying Higher Hazardous Substance Taxes,” Onstot writes:

“But Tesoro, and indeed the oil industry as a whole, has a history of safety and environmental problems. And this latest disaster looks especially bad as Tesoro has spent the last few months leading the fight against legislation in Olympia that would increase what it pays in taxes for making money off of hazardous substances--specifically oil--in this state. Money raised by the tax hike would pay for pollution clean-up projects.”

In addition the article was accompanied by the following picture with caption:

Anacortesrefinery-thumb-300x225

“The work here might be dangerous and
produce a toxic product, but Tesoro doesn't
think it should pay higher taxes for it.”

Onstot’s churlish reporting attempts to create a nexus that doesn’t exist between the accident and Tesoro’s legislative efforts.  The inference by Onstot is that the accident would have been more forgivable, if not permissible, had Tesoro not been advocating against a tax increase.

The accident and Tesoro’s efforts in Olympia are simply not linked in anyway.  Any such attempt to tie these two issues together will only serve to distract from the unfortunate accident and muddy the debate surrounding the protection of the Puget Sound.

Greens vs. Science - Tuna edition

April 7, 2010 in Blog

Environmental activists have long pushed the myth that eating tuna and some other fish is bad for women due to potentially high levels of mercury. The Washington State Department of Health shows the nuanced approach to this warning. On their web page they give the following advice to women who are or might become pregnant:

Do not eat  - shark, swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, or tuna steaks.

About those across-the-board cuts

April 7, 2010 in Blog

Two weeks ago Governor Gregoire warned that if the Legislature doesn't adopt a budget by April 13 she would be forced to execute state law which requires across-the-board cuts.

According to RCW 43.88.110 (7):

"If at any time during the fiscal period the governor projects a
cash deficit in a particular fund or account as defined by RCW 43.88.050,
the governor shall make across-the-board reductions in allotments for
that particular fund or account so as to prevent a cash deficit, unless
the legislature has directed the liquidation of the cash deficit over
one or more fiscal periods . . ."

With no deal currently at hand and April 13 just around the corner, I asked the Office of Financial Management today at what point the Governor would be making the threatened across-the-board cuts. The answer was that there is no specific date required and it would depend on how close the Legislature was to reaching an agreement.

I followed up to see if there was any point of no return for lawmaker inaction like by May 1 or anything like that and again was told there is no specific date. 

Based on this information it sounds like the bigger threat for lawmakers failing to get the job done in a timely manner isn't across-the-board cuts but the possibility the State Treasurer may be forced to borrow to pay the bills.  p>

As to the requirements of RCW 43.88.110 (7), it looks like this budget protection isn't as strong as implied and could use some strengthening.

'Certificate of Need' could cost Tri-Cities more hospital beds, better care, more jobs

April 7, 2010 in Blog

More than 300 people showed up to a public meeting last night in Kennewick to urge the state to approval bed expansion requests by both Kadlec Regional Medical Center and Kennewick General Hospital.

 

Both hospitals want to expand; Kadlec by 114 beds and Kennewick by 25. However, because of state laws that limit expansion of hospitals, most in the community believe one request is likely to be denied. The ‘Certificate of Need’ makes it illegal for hospitals to expand without permission from the government. Washington is one 37 states that require specific government permission to open, expand or modify most kinds of health facilities. CON laws have grown out of the belief that a surplus of medical facilities and services meant providers would pass the excess cost onto patients.

 

The federal government saw the failure of CON laws and repealed them in 1982. Fourteen states have followed suit and Washington should do the same.

 

The ‘need’ for these beds is clear. It has become routine for beds to be full at Kadlec and Kennewick, and for patients to be sent to hospitals outside the area. Doctors at the meeting said they have been averaging 10% growth in patient numbers for the past 15 years because of the Tri-Cities population boom. Doctors entered their profession to help patients, not fight state regulations. Other medical experts who testified said the state is putting them in a position to fight other medical institutions for beds. Instead of medical experts and the communities they serve, the state then becomes the ‘decider’ in determining how much care should be available in each community.

 

As pointed out in the WPC Policy Guide, “CON laws create the opposite of their intended purpose, actively blocking citizens’ access to health care choices and modern health care facilities. The laws also bog down health care providers in stacks of regulation and paperwork.”