Washington Policy Blog

NHTS: more people walk to work than use public transit

April 15, 2010 in Blog

The Federal Highway Administration has released its 2009 National Household Travel Survey. There is a lot of data here and the format is challenging to navigate.

I spent some time looking at person trips by mode and purpose. Specifically, mode share to work. 

Mode share

88.3% of all commute trips take place with a car or truck, while only 3.7% use transit. In fact, there are more people who walk to work than take transit. The Puget Sound region has about the same mode split, which is madness when you consider:

It is no wonder Seattle is the most congested city in America.  

Legislature Finds $15 Million For Political Poster Child While Environmental Projects Go Unfunded

April 14, 2010 in Blog

Today's Seattle Times reportsthat the state set aside $15 million from the Asarco settlement to help buy a gravel mine on Maury Island that has been a poster child for Seattle environmental activists. During the past few years, environmental activists have spent huge sums of money suing to stop the creation of a dock to move the gravel off the island. Both Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark and King County Executive Dow Constantine made the issue a centerpiece of their campaigns, promising island residents that they would stop the project.

Politicians and environmental activists claim the dock is environmentally damaging. There's only one problem -- the scientists at the Puget Sound Partnership don't rank this project as a priority.

In their priority list for the South Central Area, the scientists at the Puget Sound Partnershp (PSP) do not mention the dock. Despite that, the state found $15 million to prevent it from being used. By way of comparison, $15 million is larger than the annual protection and restoration budgets for:

  • DOE - Local Gov't Stormwater Grants - $14
  • Washington Wildlife and Recreation Grants (WWRP) - $11
  • DOE – other direct spending - $11
  • Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) - $10
  • Puget Sound Partnership (PSP) - $9
  • Public Works Assistance Account (PWAA) - $5
  • Department of Natural Resources (DNR) - $4
  • State Parks - $3
  • Salmon Recovery Funding Board (SRFB) - $3
  • Conservation Commission - $2
  • Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account (ALEA) - $2

While the Maury Island dock is not a priority concern, the PSP does, however, list Quartermaster Harbor, on the other side of Maury Island, sandwiched between Vashon and Maury Islands. Quartermaster Harbor, which is part of a state aquatic reserve, is recognized as one of the most polluted places in the Sound. The Vashon/Maury Island Beachcomber reports that "Research five years ago showed that Quartermaster Harbor hosts the highest concentration in all of Puget Sound of an alga that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning."

The problem is that septic tanks surrounding the Harbor are failing, polluting the harbor. So, what has been done about this problem?

Despite working for years, there has no progress fixing the problem of septic tank failure. Last September the Beachcomber reported "After two years of effort, King County officials have made little headway in a far-reaching attempt to get homeowners along the western shore of outer Quartermaster Harbor to address failing septic systems that are fouling the wildlife-rich bay."

The County doesn't deserve all of the blame, the homeowners are not cooperating and politicians are not anxious to put pressure on voters and donors who helped them during the last campaign. This is a major reason that so much focus has been put on the gravel dock rather than a more significant environmental concern a couple miles away.

The final irony is that while $15 million has been lavished on a non-problem, a group looking to help clean Quartermaster Harbor is begging for volunteers. The Beachcomber reports that "The Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a small, highly regarded nonprofit that is undertaking the mussel research, wants volunteers. Islanders can help them collect native mussels to attach to the raft or even help build the raft."

For more information on how to help the Fund, visit www.restorationfund.org.

Not so fast on Fed plan to treat bicycles the same as auto use

April 14, 2010 in Blog

From the Washington Post:

WASHINGTON -- Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood,
a weekend bicyclist, might consider keeping his head down and his
helmet on. A backlash is brewing over his new bicycling policy.

LaHood says the government is going to give bicycling - and walking,
too - the same importance as automobiles in transportation planning and
the selection of projects for federal money. The former Republican
congressman quietly announced the "sea change" in transportation policy
last month.

"This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized," he wrote in his government blog.

Not so fast, say some conservatives and industries dependent on
trucking. A manufacturers' blog called the policy "nonsensical." One
congressman suggested LaHood was on drugs.

Deficit déjà vu

April 14, 2010 in Blog

At her press conference yesterday Governor Gregoire was asked about the projected deficit for the 2011-13 budget. The Governor said they don't know yet what impact the budget and taxes adopted by the Legislature this weekend will have on the next budget but that another deficit is likely. Here is her exchange with reporters on this topic:

The Governor also said that future tax increases for education spending are likely, though they will probably show up as a ballot measure for the voters to approve.

As for the Back to the Future budget deficit, in February the Office of Financial Management produced this 4-year budget outlook showing a projected $2.1 billion deficit in 2011-13 assuming the Governor's smaller spending and tax package:

Budget outlook

Since the Legislature's plan spends and taxes more than the Governor proposed, OFM may update the February 4-year budget outlook in the coming weeks to get a better feel for the pending 2011-13 deficit. 

It will be interesting to see what reforms or tax increases will be proposed to solve that problem. It's unfortunate the Legislature used a full 30-day special session to enact a budget but failed to adopt policies to make it sustainable.

Sen. Brown vs. Sen. Brown

April 13, 2010 in Blog

A lot of strange things can happen when working until 1 a.m. in the morning, including the instance of arguing with yourself.

Consider the following sides of the debate Sen. Brown found herself on last night concerning whether a tax increase is permanent or temporary.

First was her floor speech on HB 2561 arguing that an amendment to describe the sales tax on bottled water as being "permanent" was misleading since there is no such thing as a permanent tax.

Then later in the evening was her floor speech on SB 6143 arguing that the job credits being passed were "permanent" but the tax increases "temporary."

In the same evening Sen. Brown argued that a change in tax policy is "permanent" when it is a tax credit but "temporary" when a tax increase.

State Auditor writes letter supporting our work

April 13, 2010 in Blog

State Auditor Brian Sonntag has long been a friend of the Washington Policy Center and supporters of accountable, effective and transparent government.

It looks like the State Auditor is also a fan of our work. Here are details from a recent letter he sent:

"I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for all your support of our audit work and for your efforts to make state government work better for the citizens it serves. The Center for Government Reform and the Office of State Auditor share common purposes to achieve greater government transparency and accountability . . .

In my opinion, the Center for Government Reform plays and important role, monitoring, analyzing and reporting actions of the Legislature and state government agencies. This is vital in light of the diminished ability by the news media to cover activities at the Capitol. Amid current economic conditions and state government's financial challenges, both o!
f our organizations have stood at the forefront in advocating significant reforms in the way government operates . . .

We appreciate that your work is nonpartisan, constructive and solution-oriented. Again, this complements our Office's independence and objectivity as a statewide elected Office that works for and reports directly to Washington citizens.

I look forward to maintaining our strong positive relationship as we continue to work on ideas and issues of mutual interest benefitting the public. Thanks again for your help and support of our responsibilities."

You can read the rest of the State Auditor's letter here.

State unemployment rate back up to 9.5%

April 13, 2010 in Blog

Though the state saw minuscule job growth during the month of March, the unemployment rate rose to 9.5%. The national rate is 9.7%. 

Year-over-year comparison (March 2009 - 2010) saw a decrease of almost 68,000 jobs. This shows a gradual leveling off of year-over-year loss -- although March 2009's unemployment rate was only 8.5%. The last few unemployment reports saw YoY decreases of 100,000+ jobs. 

From the report:

"Nonfarm payrolls declined by 67,800 jobs between March 2009 and 2010. In addition to being the job loss leader over the month, construction led all sectors in year-over-year declines, down 26,400 jobs. While most major industries sustained job losses year-over-year, three did add to payrolls: education and health services, retail tra!
de, and mining and logging."

It will be interesting to look back a year from now, after the 2009-11 supplemental budget tax increases are enacted to gauge its impact on job creation/loss. 

Do the words permanent tax confuse you?

April 12, 2010 in Blog

It appears some Senators may have a problem with truth in advertising. This evening the Senate is poised to adopt HB 2561 which makes the temporary sales tax increase on bottled water from SB 6143 permanent to pay for "green" building bonds. Never mind the fact the bill seeks to amend a law not yet enacted.

Another interesting tidbit is the objection to changing the proposed ballot title for the measure. Section 501 (3) reads:

Pursuant to RCW 29A.72.050(6), the statement of subject and concise description for the ballot title shall read: "The legislature has passed Engrossed House Bill No. 2561 (this act), concerning job creation through energy efficiency projects in school buildings. This bill would promote job creation by authorizing bonds to construct energy efficiency savings improvements to schools, including higher education buildings."

Senator Parlette offered an amendment to change that section to read: 

Pursuant to RCW 29A.72.050(6), the statement of subject and concise
description for the ballot title shall read: "The legislature has
passed Engrossed House Bill No. 2561 (this act), concerning job
creation through energy efficiency projects in school buildings. This bill authorizes bonds in excess of the Article VIII, section 1 constitutional debt limit to construct school energy efficiency improvements, and makes permanent the sales tax on bottled water."

The amendment failed by a vote of 16-30.

Those opposing this change worried that voters would be confused by the reference to debt in excess of the constitutional limit and describing the removal of the expiration date on the bottled water sales tax increase as being permanent. You see, Sen. Brown pointed out that calling the tax permanent would be misleading since the Legislature could repeal it at any time.

And as we already know, honoring the will of the voters isn't high on Olympia's priority list so such a repeal could actually happen, right?

If such a repeal were to happen, Section 401 of the bill would come to the rescue:

The legislature may provide additional means for raising moneys for the payment of the principal of and interest on the bonds authorized in section 201 of this act, and section 202 of this act may not be deemed to provide an exclusive method for the payment.

There you have it, if the voters approve this bond measure and the Legislature changes the permanent bottled water tax back to being temporary, the Legislature is authorized to raise a new tax to pay back the bonds. Of course, even if the sales tax on bottled water isn't repealed, the Legislature would still have the authority for additional new taxes per Section 401.

Idaho - Washington conflict continues over who is better for business

April 12, 2010 in Blog

Idaho Governor Butch Otter returned fire this weekend as he continues the war of words with Governor Gregoire over which state is more business friendly. In an op-ed he penned for the Seattle Times, Governor Otter says

"Business owners understand that having a state government working with you, rather than against you, makes all the difference. Just ask Areva, the French company that was looking for somewhere to build a multibillion-dollar uranium-enrichment plant in 2008. Idaho and Washington were in the running, and competition was fierce for the 700 construction jobs and 250 permanent career opportunities — not to mention many expected spinoff and support businesses.

In the end, it came down to attitude. Areva officials said after visiting Olympia, they "didn't feel welcome over there."

Otter's op-ed comes on the heels of Rogers Weed's piece defending Washington as 

"...Washington is fiscally sound. Washington earns high marks from all three major bond-rating agencies. Our unemployment-insurance fund and other key programs are solvent, while many other states have had to borrow extensively and will have to substantially raise rates to repay their loans in coming years. It all adds up to predictability for business."

To which Governor Otter replied,

"...Idaho has reduced state spending as revenues have declined, keeping our commitment to put individual citizens and family budgets ahead of government programs and live within the taxpayers' means.

Washington, on the other hand, has trimmed a little around the edges but mostly is attacking its enormous deficit by raising taxes on employers, and ultimately on consumers. Right now it appears Washington will impose hundreds of millions of dollars in business and occupation tax increases on service-related companies."

So, I find it interesting then that in the proposed supplemental budget released today, there is a line item for $3.2 million in funding for "associate development organizations" for 2010, another $3.2 million for 2011. 

What is an "associate development organization?" According to legislation passed in 2007 authorizing such entities, they are responsible for, among other things:

(b) Providing information
on state and local permitting processes, tax issues, and other essential
information for operating, expanding, or locating a business in Washington;

(c) Marketing
Washington and local areas as excellent locations to expand or relocate a
business and positioning Washington as a globally competitive place to grow
business, which may include developing and executing regional plans to attract
companies from out of state;

So, Idaho's Governor is cutting regulation and taxes while Washington increases them. But have no fear, policymakers are spending $6.4 million towards making Washington look more appealing to prospective businesses. 

The Shifting Math of the "Jobs" Bill

April 12, 2010 in Blog

Today, the legislature will vote on a bill to increase state debt by $500 million, spending the money on a variety of projects on public buildings. As this bill has moved forward, the number of jobs created by the spending has changed, and not in a consistent way.

When the bill was offered initially, it proposed borrowing $850 million to create 38,000 jobs -- a cost of $22,368.42 per job. The bill being offered today has been scaled back by about 40 percent, down to $500 million. The jobs creation estimates, however, were cut by about half that amount, to 30,000 jobs, for a cost of $16,666.67 per job. Since the projects have not been chosen, these numbers are purely estimates, so it is unclear why the cost per job would change. Remember that these numbers include both labor and materials, so not all of this amount goes to workers.

Last month we noted that the basis for job creation claims can be all over the map. When the Governor announced grants to create "green" jobs, the cost per job ranged from $174,063 to $477.

Additionally, although the bill says it will "create jobs quickly," the criteria for submitted grants won't be finished until December 31, 2010. Applications will then be turned in and approved sometime during 2011 with construction to begin after that.

An example of the confusion about jobs, is this discussion from January 13, when the bill was first heard in the Capital Budget Committee. The discussion is interesting because it demonstrates:

- How fast and loose they are with the jobs projections
- The tension between efficiency and job creation. Rep. Dunshee claims both that the bill will be extremely efficient, with a high return on investment and claims that it costs more to do these kinds of projects, leading to more jobs.

1 p.m. vote scheduled for 344 page budget bill?

April 12, 2010 in Blog

The grapevine is a buzz with House plans to vote on the 344 page budget (just made public moments ago) at 1 p.m. today.

I didn't realize Olympia was home to so many proficient speed readers. Our lawmakers wouldn't vote on billions in spending without first reading the details, would they?

Here is the budget bill in all its glory.

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!