Washington Policy Blog

Not High Speed Rail: $590 million to help Seattle/Portland train be on time

January 28, 2010 in Blog

Washington to get $590 million for high-speed rail improvements

Only two-thirds of passenger trains run on time on the 3 ½-hour trip
between Seattle and Portland, and the state is trying to boost that
number to 90 percent.

Let's be more clear. This money is not to build a high-speed rail system between Portland and Seattle. This money is only to help Amtrak reach better on-time performance. And Amtrak trains are already highly subsidized, losing an average of $37 per passenger.

WPC completed a 30 page study on the government's supposed attempt to build HSR. Here are the key findings:

• Initial funding commits the nation to a program whose eventual costs could exceed $1 trillion. This doesn’t count overruns, operating subsidies, and rehabilitation costs.
• Outside of the Boston-to-Washington and Philadelphia-to-Harrisburg routes, Amtrak short distance trains lose an average of $37 per passenger and Amtrak expects the states to cover most of these operating losses.
• A hidden cost of rail is that it must be rebuilt about every 30 years.This means construction could />leave states obligated to fund billions of dollars in rehabilitation costs.
• The fact that American freight railroads are profitable while European passenger lines are not suggests that freight, not passenger, is the highest and best use of a modern railroad in most places.
• It is far more cost-effective to save energy by encouraging people to drive more fuel-efficient cars than to build and operate high-speed rail.
• Considering the energy required for rail construction, improvements in auto and airline energy efficiencies, and the high energy cost required to move trains at higher speeds, highspeed rail will have little to no environmental benefit.
• Upgrading the 280 rail miles in Washington to 110-mph standards would cost nearly $1 billion.
• The average Washingtonian will take a round trip on high-speed rail once every 8.5 years.
• For every Washingtonian who rides high-speed rail once a month, more than 100 Washington res!
idents will never ride it.

You can read th!
e full report here:
Why the U.S. and Washington Should Not Build High-Speed Rail

Senators propose government restructuring commission

January 26, 2010 in Blog

A bipartisan group of Senators (Kastama, Swecker, Eide, Delvin, Hobbs, King, Murray, Hatfield, Berkey) has introduced SB 6786: Creating a commission to restructure state government.

According to the bill:

(2) The commission shall:
(a) Review budget, revenue, and caseload forecasts and estimates over the ensuing six-year period;

(b) Examine current operations and organization of stat!
e government assuming no expansion of current funding sources;!

(c) Evaluate operational and organizational restructuring possibilities to find cost savings and efficiencies in order to maintain or enhance governmental functions with fewer resources.

(3) The commission may make proposals to:

(a) Adopt methods and procedures for reducing expenditures to the lowest amount consistent with the efficient performance of essential services, activities, and functions;

(b) Eliminate duplication and overlapping of services, activities, and functions, and time-consuming or wasteful practices;

(c) Consolidate services, activities, and functions of a similar nature;

(d) Abolish services, activities, and functions not necessary to the efficient operation of government;

(e) Eliminate unnecessary state departments and agencies, create necessary new state departments and agencies, reorganize existing state departments an!
d agencies, and transfer functions and responsibilities among state departments and agencies;

(f) Define or redefine the duties and responsibilities of state officers;

(g) Revise present provisions for continuing or permanent appropriations of state funds of whatever kind for whatever purpose, eliminate any such existing provisions, and adopt new provisions.

The bill appoints Booth Gardner, John Spellman, Sid Snyder, Slade Gorton, Dan Evans, and Ruth Walsh McIntyre to the commission.

One of the many recommendations from Washington Policy Center's Policy Guide is to begin a “base closing” process for state programs and agencies to determine which ones can be consolidated or eliminated to help optimize state spending. The proposed restructuring commission appears to be a step in this direction.

Can light rail avoid Bellevue Way?

January 26, 2010 in Blog

Yes. And according to Bellevue City Councilman Kevin Wallace, his Vision Line proposal also costs less:

This proposal, dubbed the "Vision Line," accomplishes Sound Transit
goals by providing quality light rail at a cost substantially less than
the tunnel routes under consideration. Sound Transit is currently
studying the Vision Line and three other new alignments in downtown
Bellevue. In the coming months it will decide whether to adopt this
option as its new preferred alternative.

The Vision Line uses the BNSF railroad right of way through South
Bellevue, travels elevated along the west side of Interstate 405 at the
edge of downtown to Northeast Sixth Street where it crosses I-405 and
reconnects with the BNSF right of way to the north.

This alignment is safer, faster and more reliable than other
alternatives because it is entirely grade separated from roadways,
meaning it can run at full speed without concern for traffic.

Bill introduced to outsource part of state's I.T. functions

January 25, 2010 in Blog

Last summer the state broke ground on the new Department of Information Services data center. The project will cost upwards of $255 million and consolidate the state government's I.T. infrastructure and its 32 current data centers. But some legislators are concerned that such a large project isn't necessarily the best way to go. Why? Because of the emergence of cloud computing.

Restriction on new tax preferences introduced

January 22, 2010 in Blog

Senator Rodney Tom (D-48) has introduced a bill to restrict the creation of new tax preferences. SB 6736: Modifying state expenditure limitations would mandate that new tax preferences must be offset with reductions in existing tax preferences. The bill would change the state's expenditure limit to: 

Section 1. (d) Assure that new tax preferences do not decrease funding for essential services by adjusting previously enacted tax preferences; . . .

Section 3. (1) After January 1, 2010, the fiscal impact of new tax preferences must be offset by modifying or repealing previously enacted tax preferences in order to enact a single piece of legislation which has a net zero impact or a net posit!
ive impact.

The proposal also changes the definition of what it means to raise taxes:

Section 2. (6) For the purposes of this chapter, "raises taxes" means any action or combination of actions by the legislature, other than an action or combination of actions that has a net zero impact or a net positive impact under section 3 of this act, that increases state tax revenue deposited in any fund, budget, or account, regardless of whether the revenues are deposited into the general fund.

If adopted this means that new tax preferences could not be enacted unless a previous tax preference was modified to generate the same amount of revenue or more. The two-thirds vote requirement to enact tax increases would not be triggered under such an action since the bill redefines what it means to raise taxes.

Senate votes for temporary employee compensation savings

January 22, 2010 in Blog

The Senate today adopted SB 6503: Closing state agencies on specified dates. The bill passed 27 to 17. According to the bill report:

"State agencies are directed to achieve a $69.154 million reduction in employee compensation costs from the near General Fund through mandatory and voluntary furloughs, leave without pay, reduced work hours, voluntary retirements and separations, layoffs, and other methods. Agency compensation reduction plans must be submitted by May 15 and approved by the Office of Financial Management by June 1. Agencies that fail to submit an approved compensation reduction plan will be subject to 13 specified agency closure dates beginning in June 2010."

An amendment to extend and increase the savings through 2013 was rejected. The amendment failed on a voice vote.

State employee unions bitterly oppose the temporary compensation reductions. The Washington Federation of State Employees told its members to lobby against the bill saying

  • "This is not about making state employees shoulder their fair share. They already have, giving up $1 billion in pay, health benefits, pension contributions and some 4,700 layoffs. No other jurisdiction in this state has taken both health care and wage cuts on top of furloughs."
  • "Instead of closing state offices and temporarily laying off staff, the Legislature instead should close some of the $14 billion in accessible tax breaks. What is more important, a tax break for condominium maintenance or keeping quality services for taxpayers?"

According to the Office of Financial Management (OFM), the average total compensation for a state full-time equivalent (FTE) employee was $72,504 in 2009. This is an increase of $12,909 since 2005 (22 percent increase).

In related news, I asked OFM how much could be saved if state employee contributions for health care was increased from 12 percent to 20 percent. Here is the answer:

"If we did nothing else to solve the projected fund balance deficit in PEBB of $220 - $240 million, and moved the average employee contribution from 12% to 20%, we would generate approximately $48 million, which would reduce the projected deficit to $172 -$192 million. That amount would be for the 6 months beginning Jan.1, 2011, since that is likely the next time a premium change could be implemented. Some or all of !
that could be used to save General Fund money, but that would be up to the Legislature."

The average state employee health care contribution of 12 percent is far below the average private sector share.

According to the Washington Research Council, "A recent Towers Perrin survey of 200 large employers found that the average employee’s share of health care premiums was 22.6 percent in 2008, up from 20.1 percent in 2003."

Emergence of Cloud Computing = Government Regulation Can’t Be Far Behind

January 22, 2010 in Blog

Cloud-computingBrad Smith, Microsoft’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel address! ed the Brookings Institution earlier this week calling for government to get involved to enhance the safety, security and privacy of the "

Gregoire: No guarantee of federal bailout money

January 21, 2010 in Blog

Governor Chris Gregoire was the keynote speaker at today's Association of Washington Business Lobby lunch. The Governor spoke about the budget, green-jobs bond bill, government reform, education reform and tax exemptions. Here are some of the highlights:


  • She doesn't know what the state can expect now from the federal government in light of Tuesday's election in Massachusetts. She said there is the potential for nothing from the feds but she is waiting to see if anything might still be passed before sine die.
  • She is stressing with lawmakers that the state's budget problems are at a minimum for three-years and they shouldn't approach this year as merely a supplemental budget. Long-term reforms are not discretionary.
  • She is open to tax increases that "won't hurt the economy."

Green-jobs bond bill

  • The Governor was asked whether she supports EHB 2561 adopted yesterday by the House. She said that she wants to find a way to stimulate jobs but we can't continue to focus on stimulating public sector jobs; we need to stimulate private sector jobs.
  • She also said that until the State Treasurer tells her this proposal will not jeopardize the state's credit rating she cannot support it. Yesterday the Treasurer warned that the bill "would threaten the state’s bond rating and increase debt service obligations on the general fund by $126 million a biennium once fully implemented."
  • Gregoire then reiterated instead, "It's time for us to stimulate private sector jobs that will continue in the future."

Government reform

  • Discussing legislative concerns with her reform proposals the Governor said that if "we keep the attitude going of not in my backyard, nothing will get done." Lawmakers need to get things in perspective and not put their heads in the sand. She closed by saying that the state must re-boot and called on the business community to encourage lawmakers to enact meaningful reforms since they are "losing their stomach" for the changes needed.

Education reform and Race to the Top

  • The Governor was asked if the education reforms she's proposing will guarantee the state will qualify for the Race to the Top funds. Gregoire said she can't guarantee we'll be eligible if her education package is enacted but she can guarantee we won't be if the legislature doesn't act on it. She was also asked about charter schools but said she has no plan to pursue them since the voters have consistently rejected them.

Tax exemptions

  • The other noteworthy comment the Governor made was in regard to efforts to close business tax exemptions. She said that getting rid of exemptions is a nice thing to say but you can't get rid of a lot of them without hurting our economy. This comment appeared to throw cold water on some of the efforts for large scale repeal of tax exemptions.

Budget transparency bill scheduled for hearing

January 21, 2010 in Blog

It looks like the state budget may receive a little more sunlight. The bipartisan 72 hour budget timeout bill is scheduled for a public hearing next Monday and may receive executive action later in the week. Here are additional details:

Sponsors: Representatives Alexander, Seaquist, Bailey, Ericks, Dammeier, Schmick, Wallace, Morrell, Simpson, Smith

    Jan 15  First reading, referred to Ways & Means. (View Original Bill)
    Jan 25  Scheduled for pu!
blic hearing in the House Committee on Ways & Means at 3:30 PM. (Subject to change) (Committee Materials)
    Jan 26  Scheduled for executive session in the House Committee on Ways & Means at 3:30 PM. (Subject to change) (Committee Materials)
    Jan 27  Scheduled for executive ses!
sion in the House Committee on Ways & Means at 3:30 PM. (Subject to!
change) (Committee Materials)

Will sun set on Sunshine Committee?

January 21, 2010 in Blog

The House Committee on State Government & Tribal Affairs heard public testimony this morning on HB 2617: Eliminating certain boards and commissions. Among the boards targeted for elimination is the Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee (a.k.a. Sunshine Committee).

This is not the first time the Sunshine Committee has been in the legislature's crosshairs. Last year Sen. Darlene Fairley (D-32) introduced SB 5119: Eliminating the public exemptions accountability committee.

The bill was not brought up for a vote.

According to the Attorney General's Office, the cost to operate the Sunshine Committee has been $32,323!
since 2007. The majority of that was during the 2007-09 budget. The cost for the current budget has been $5,563.

Perhaps more troubling than the proposal to eliminate the Sunshine Committee is the fact that none of its recommendations from 2009 have been introduced for consideration this session. This includes the sense of the Committee that the legislature's exemption from the public records act should be repealed.

Although none of the Sunshine Committee's 2009 recommendations have been introduced, lawmakers have found time to propose several c!
hanges to the public records act that concern open government advocates.

U.S. losing ground in global competitiveness

January 20, 2010 in Blog

A new report out today from The Heritage Foundation reports that the United States is losing ground to its major competitors in the global marketplace. The 2010 Index of Economic Freedom, co-published with The Wall Street Journal, reports that out of the top 20 world economies, the U.S. suffered the largest drop in overall economic freedom. 

"Scores declined in seven of the 10 categories of economic freedom. Losses were particularly significant in the areas of financial freedom, monetary freedom and property rights. Driving it all were the federal government's interventionist responses to the financial and economic crises of the last two years, which have included politically influenced regulatory changes, protectionist trade restrictions, massive stimulus spending and bailouts !
of financial and automotive firms deemed "too big to fail." These policies have resulted in job losses, discouraged entrepreneurship and saddled American with unprecedented government deficits."

The U.S. was previously ranked at 6th most free and now occupies the 8th place. Canada now ranks higher and boasts the highest North American ranking. Hong Kong continues to lead the rankings, for the 16th consecutive year, followed by Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. 

Why is economic freedom important? Because it leads to innovation, risk-taking, entrepreneurship and ultimately, a higher standard of living. This helps alleviate poverty and leads to higher levels of education. Not only that, but successful economies churn out product and profit and tax revenue, which is used to help pay for vital infrastructure such as roads, schools, police, a cleaner environment and social safety nets. 

It's no coincidence that gro!
ups like Washington Policy Center advocate for freer economies!
and streamlined, accountable government. The smaller the tax and regulatory burden on our businesses and entrepreneurs, the more successful they will become. This results in a win-win for folks in the private and public sectors. 

Only 67 passengers ride new Amtrak train between Seattle and Vancouver

January 19, 2010 in Blog

Last August, Amtrak opened a second train between Seattle and Vancouver B.C. The line is meant to be a pilot project ahead of the Winter Olympic games due to begin in February. Both the WSDOT and the Canadian government are waiting to see how high passenger demand is before deciding whether to make the second train permanent.

The new train makes one additional round trip between Seattle and Vancouver, everyday. According to the WSDOT, the average number of passengers on each leg is about 67.

The National Railroad Passenger Corporation presented a re!
port to Congress
in October 2009 that estimated the second line would lose about $1 million in operating costs (paid by taxpayers) and it would serve about 60,000 trips per year. The 60,000 trips per year translates to about 82 people per leg between Seattle and Vancouver.

Olympic service begins on February 12, 2009 and as Jared Paben points out on his Bellingham Traffic Blog, officials plan to make a decision on whether to make the second train permanent within the month. I'm still trying to find out how many passengers are required to justify permanent service (I've seen numbers between 60-100). But the current 67 passengers-per-leg is data collected between August 19 and December 31. I found that State and Amtrak officials offered a 25 percent discount on all fares to and from Vancouver over the same time period!
. Lowering prices during a time in which you're measuring !
demand (in the hopes of justifying permanent service) doesn't seem very objective to me but that's exactly what happened.

Either way, spending a million dollars per year in public taxes to move 67 people per day between Seattle and Vancouver is laughable. Supporters say instead of measuring mobility, we should look at the economic benefits of adding a second train. They point to a WSDOT study that shows Amtrak passengers spend about $13-$26 million a year in the Vancouver area

Are you kidding? Its reasonable to expect passengers to spend a couple of hundred dollars in the Vancouver area. But if the WSDOT finding is correct, then those 67 passengers would have to spend between $36,000 to $71,000 everyday they crossed into Vancouver. That is simply unrealistic.

The study also mistakenly assumes this economic activity would not !
occur otherwise. People who choose to visit Vancouver would do so with or without a second Amtrak train. They would just find a different way to get there.

Adding a second train between Seattle and Vancouver makes sense during the Winter Olympics. But continuing permanent service beyond March stretches the support of even the most liberal of economic interpretations.

Senator wants changes to 17th amendment

January 18, 2010 in Blog

Senator Val Stevens (R-39) has introduced a resolution calling on Congress to initiate a constitutional amendment that would restore the selection of U.S. Senators by state legislatures instead of by direct elections. Here are details from SJM 8020 - Requesting that Congress amend the 17th amendment of the United States Constitution:

Your Memorialists respectfully pray:

(1) That the Legislature of the State of Washington find and declare to be defective the current process of electing United States Senators, which fails to represent the interests of the individual states;

(2) That Congress, in accordance with Article V of the Constitution of the United States, immediately transmit to the several states for ratification an amendment to the 17th amendment of the United States Constitution, as described!
in subsection (3) of this memorial, resolving the procedural problems, particularly the problem of the deadlocked State Legislature, inherent in the original concept; and

(3) That the amendment read as follows: "Section 1. The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, selected by the legislature of each State. Each Senator shall serve a six-year term and may be reappointed. Each Senator shall have one vote.

Section 2. Senators are subject to removal by the State  Legislature. Removal of a Senator requires a majority of each House of the State Legislature.

Section 3. Congress is precluded from enacting any legislation affecting the senatorial selection process. Each State Legislature shall enact rules and procedures, consistent with this amendment, related to the selection and removal of Senators. A State Legislature may implement a selection procedure whereby the State Legislature selects a !
Senator by a plurality vote rather than a majority. If a State!
Legislature fails to enact a selection procedure, the State Legislature shall sit as a single body and shall select a Senator by a plurality vote. Irrespective of the procedures followed by the State Legislature, if the State Legislature does not choose a Senator within thirty days after a vacancy, the Governor of the State shall select the Senator.

The resolution argues the 17 amendment (ratified in 1913) changed the balance of power envisioned by the founding fathers, stripping state legislatures of their power to control against congressional encroachment of state sovereignty.