Washington Policy Blog

Viaduct: I have altered the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further!

April 24, 2009 in Blog

Did you know the deep bore tunnel reduces capacity from the current six lane configuration to just four lanes? This is not a "replacement" of the viaduct, but rather a reduction in service.

And in classic government fashion, taxpayers will have to pay more for it. Just like Vader's deal to Lando Calrissian, the deal given to taxpayers just keeps getting worse.

Tolling the Viaduct

April 24, 2009 in Blog

The legislature's vote to partially replace the Viaduct with a deep bore tunnel allocates $2.4 billion in state money, with a provision that allows for an additional $400 million collected from tolling.

The bill includes this language:

The state route number 99 Alaskan Way viaduct replacement
project finance plan must include state funding not to exceed two
billion four hundred million dollars and must also include at least
four hundred million dollars in toll revenue. These funds must be used
solely to build a replacement tunnel, as described in subsection (1) of
this section, and to remove the existing state route number 99 Alaskan
Way viaduct.

This is significant for two reasons. First, tolling would end once the debt inte!
rest on the additional $400 million is paid off. And second, the tolling revenue can only be used for construction (and demolition) purposes, not transit.

Both of these stipulations are consistent with WPC's tolling policy and consistent with how the state has used tolling in the past. With the exception of the HOT lane pilot project on HWY 167, policymakers still seem hesitant to manage demand through roadway pricing. And state policymakers also seem to resist the idea of using toll revenue for transit purposes.

State Auditor on "Reinventing Government"

April 23, 2009 in Blog

State Auditor Brian Sonntag was a guest today on Inside Olympia. The interview focused on the theme of reinventing government. Among the topics discussed:

  • Legislative action or inaction on reforms
  • Auditor's budget
  • Statewide performance review
  • Why the auditor doesn't issue press releases
  • I-900 and Tim Eyman
  • Legislative detractors of audits
  • Sonntag's participation at the anti-tax rally on April 15

Here is the video:

Additional Inform!
Whatever happened to government reform?
State Auditor fights performance audit cuts

Seattle Times: Back to the template

April 23, 2009 in Blog

For a while there Seattle Times' top Olympia reporter Andrew Garber was giving readers a more accurate view of state budget trends, explaining that the "cuts" being debated are mostly reductions in the rate of planned spending increase, and that future increases are built in to respond to expected growth of public services, but now, well...never mind.  Today the Times is back to the standard template, describing "deep cuts...totaling $4 billion," and "the total budget shortfall...is about $9 billion," leaving readers with the strong impression that state government is about to get radically smaller.

Compare this to the better-informed coverage reporter Richard Roesler provides today for readers of the Spokesman-Review:  "....the state is expected to have collected about $30.4 billion for the 2007-09 budget.  Over the next two years, state economists think, that will rise to $30.5 billion.  The $9 billion!
shortfall is based on what it would have cost to keep state services and programs as-is..."

Roesler's coverage puts the deficit in a clear context, and explains that the people of Washington will pay slightly more in taxes to Olympia in the next budget compared to the last one, news you won't learn from reading the Seattle Times.

Lawmakers answer questions about sales tax increase

April 23, 2009 in Blog

TVW's The Impact last night had an insightful exchange between two lawmakers on the proposed sales tax increase. Here is the video:

Additional Information
"Responsible cuts" or "People will die"?
Details on sales tax increase proposal

Missouri looks to reform tax system by eliminating income taxes

April 22, 2009 in Blog

The talk about how adopting an income tax is the answer to the state's budget woes must be news to states like California that already have high income taxes and large budget deficits.

Despite this fact you can bet that you'll hear that argument made at the hearing later this week to enact a state income tax.

I wonder what the income tax advocates think about this news coming out of Missouri. According to the Tax Foundation:

Missouri lawmakers are considering a drastic change to their tax system. A bill recently passed by the state’s House of Representatives would allow residents to vote on a Constitutional amendment that would eliminate corporate and individual income taxes in the state and replace them with a broad based sale!
s tax. The plan is essentially a state version of the national FairTax proposal popular with some grassroots groups that would replace the federal income tax with a national sales tax. If the Senate passes the bill Missouri residents would be voting on the amendment in November of 2010.

Missouri currently has a sales tax, a corporate income tax, and a personal income tax. The sales tax rate is 4.225%, and the top corporate and personal tax rates are 6.25% and 6%, respectively. The plan put forth would replace all those taxes with a single sales tax levied at a rate of 5.11%. Accompanying the sales tax rate hike would be a substantially broadened sales tax base that would include all purchases. Currently most services are tax exempt and certain goods, most notably groceries, are taxed at a reduced rate of 1.225%. These exemptions would not exist under the new tax structure.

The overhaul of the tax system is meant to be revenue neutral. In other words, t!
he revenue from the sales tax increase and broadening of the t!
ax base is meant to exactly offset the elimination of income taxes.

Regardless of how you slice up a state's taxes, there is no such thing as a recession proof tax structure. For budget peace of mind states need to use a “three-legged stool” of sound budgeting:

  • Meaningful spending limit;
  • Protected 10% reserve account (so you don’t have to resort to tax increases or deep spending cuts in the bad times); and
  • Limiting base expenditures to core functions within the revenue forecast when in the good times.

Earth Day - Yesterday's Failures are Tomorrow's Promises

April 22, 2009 in Blog

Each year on Earth Day, politicians announce new efforts they promise will help the environment, often at no cost or even with the promise of "green jobs." Past promises, however, have consistently fallen short. Those failures are quickly forgotten and new promises are made.

Politicians claimed corn ethanol would be the answer for transportation fuels. That didn't pan out, so they now hope wood waste will be the savior. They argued that "green" buildings would dramatically cut energy costs. When that turned out not to be true their answer has been more green buildings. And after 20 years promoting electric and hydrogen cars failed, they turned to the technology that emerged from the marketplace -- hybrids. But who knows what auto technology will be the standard ten years from now, and picking hybrids today may look as foolish then as picking hydrogen cars looks today.

Many of these technologies may have promise. The government, however, repeatedly falls for ecofads, picking and choosing individual technologies, often to the detriment of more promising technologies and, ironically, the environment. Technology is the greatest hope to improve energy efficiency and use resources sustainably and efficiently. The best decisions are made by millions of creative entrepreneurs, engineers and others who risk their own funding and time on these ideas, not politicians who care more about political credit than actual environmental sustainability.

Here are a few of the promises made today and some of the results of similar promises made in the past.

Biofuel Promises

Gov. Chris Gregoire today signed House Bill 2165 to help the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) create energy from wood waste in our state’s forests. “It is fitting that Washington State takes this step forward to create clean, renewable energy and green jobs on Earth Day,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark. “Turning wood waste into electricity or liquid fuels will create both energy and jobs while improving the health of our forests.” - Department of Natural Resources release, April 22, 2009

"By requiring a growing percentage of our fuel supply to be renewable biofuel that meets appropriate fuel quality standards, we will reduce our dependence on imports of foreign oil, improve the health and quality of life for Washingtonians, and stimulate the creation of a new industry in Washington that benefits our farmers and rural communities." - Preamble, Washington State ESSB 6508, 2006

Biofuel Reality

"California regulators, trying to assess the true environmental cost of corn ethanol, are poised to declare that the biofuel cannot help the state reduce global warming. As they see it, corn is no better – and might be worse – than petroleum when total greenhouse gas emissions are considered." - Scientific American, April 20, 2009

"The news that biodieselmaker Imperium will be cutting 24 employees (or more than half of the staff) from its Grays Harbor plant, announced Thursday night, won’t be a big shocker to anyone who has followed the company’s yearlong downward spiral. The Seattle-based biofuel firm, which has raised more than $200 million over its lifetime, withdrew an IPO that could have raised an additional $345 million, back in January 2008, and soon after reduced staff from a high of 107 employees." - Earth2Tech, March 13, 2009

 "Green" Building Promises

"The legislature finds that public buildings can be built and renovated using high-performance methods that save money, improve school performance, and make workers more productive. High-performance public buildings are proven to increase student test scores, reduce worker absenteeism, and cut energy and utility costs." - Washington State SB 5509, Passed 2005

"Green" Building Reality

"When the “green” schools law was passed four years ago, supporters argued the standards would pay for themselves, reducing energy use by up to 50 percent. Supporters claimed one school in Tacoma was already saving more than 30 percent in energy use. The data showed something different. Giaudrone Middle School, built with the “green” elements, uses about 30 percent more energy than a middle school built in the same district in the same year, but without those “green” elements. ... Adding insult to injury, buildings cost more to build than was promised. Advocates told the Legislature that green buildings would cost an additional 2 percent. Interviews with facilities directors indicate the real number is 6 percent, which is not trivial. Each year, the state and school districts spend about $450 million on school construction. A 6 percent increase is about $27 million." - Washington Policy Center Op-Ed, Spokesman-Review, February 28, 200!

Electric Car Promises

"As a necessary and desirable step to expedite the transition to transportation technologies and infrastructure with reduced emissions, the department shall implement an electric vehicle and alternative fuel vehicle infrastructure program that accelerates planning and allocation of funding for pilot projects to demonstrate the feasibility of large scale deployment of charging and alternative fuels distribution infrastructure." - Washington State SB 5735, Passed April 14, 2009

Electric Car Reality

"California air regulators on Thursday gutted rules seeking to place tens of thousands of zero-emission vehicles on the road, instead ordering automakers to produce a fleet of cleaner-burning hybrids. The decision is expected to affect 12 other states -- including Washington -- that had adopted California's target for zero-emission vehicles, defined as those powered solely by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells. ... The rules have been modified four times since they were introduced. The biggest change came in 2003, when the Air Resources Board significantly scaled back the mandate and ruled that hydrogen cars, hybrids and cleaner-burning gasoline vehicles could meet the state's goals." - Associated Press, March 27, 2008

Today's promises build upon a shoddy record of using tax dollars to pick and choose technologies politicians touted as the environmental savior of tomorrow. Why will these promises be any different than the many made in the past.

Today It’s Global Warming; In the ‘70s It was the Coming Ice Age

April 22, 2009 in Blog

Untitled-1 On Earth Day, we commonly hear dark predictions about the looming horrors of global warming (a typical example, “What is at stake [is] our ability to live on planet Earth,” Al Gore). 

Yet not so long ago the news media issued dire warnings about global cooling and a coming Ice Age.  Consider these headlines:

• “The Earth’s Cooling Climate,” Science News, November 15, 1969.

• “Colder Winters Held Dawn of New Ice Age,” Washington Post, January 11, 1970.

• “Science:  Another Ice Age?”  Time Magazine, June 24, 1974.

• “The Ice Age Cometh!”  Science News, March 1, 1975.

• “The Cooling World,” Newsweek, April 28, 1975.

• “Scientists Ask Why World Climate is Changing; Major Cooling May Be Ahead,” New York Times, May 21, 1975.

• “In the Grip of a New Ice Age?” International Wildlife July-August, 1975.

• “A Major Cooling Widely Considered to Be Inevitable,” New York Times, September 14, 1975.

• “Variations in the Earth’s Orbit, Pacemaker of the Ice Ages,” Science magazine, December 10, 1976.

Reporters told the public about global cooling in the same confident tone used in today’s coverage about global warming, creating the strong impression that no reasonable person could disagree.  Here are some examples:

“The evidence in support of these predictions [global cooling] has now begun to accumulate so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” The Cooling World

“A study release last month by two NOAA scientists that the amount of sunshine reaching the ground in the continental U.S. diminished by 1.3% between 1964 and 1972.” The Cooling World

“Telltale signs are everywhere...the thickness of the pack ice...the southward migration of warmth-loving creatures like the armadillo...”  Another Ice Age?

“Since the 1940s the mean global temperature has dropped about 2.7 degrees.” Another Ice Age?

“The threat of a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery for mankind,” The Ice Age Cometh!

Critics will say there was no scientific consensus in the 1970s that the world was cooling, but that’s not how the media reported it to the public.  Similarly, today some scientists want to debate global warming and its possible causes, but the media presents global warming as a settled issue, not to be questioned.  Since the reporting today about world climate is the opposite of what it was 30 years ago, it’s ok to be skeptical about the worst predictions surrounding global warming.

Washington is in big trouble--Arne Duncan ties dollars to number of charter schools

April 22, 2009 in Blog

In this morning's Wall Street Journal, Arne Duncan writes:

    "As states and school districts across American begin drawing down the first $44 billion in education funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, they should bear in mind the core levers of change under the law.  In order to drive reform, we will require an honest assessment by states of key issues like teacher quality, student performance, college-readiness and the number of charter schools."

                                                                                                            Arne Duncan

Arne, let me tell you something you already know:  the number of charter schools in Washington State is ZERO.  Only eight other states have banned charter schools from their borders.

If you are looking for an independent, honest assessment of key issues like teacher quality, student performance and college-readiness, look no further than past entries to the Washington Policy blog on education and to our education reform plan, Eight Practical Ways to Reverse the Decline of Public Schools.   

And let me also tell you that the big new education reform plan which just passed by the legislature, HB 2261, is not a charter school bill, but just the opposite.  It adopts a one-size-fits all prototype school model and promises that work groups formed by the bill will address issues of teacher quality and student performance at some future time. 

The only way to get charter schools in Washington State, Arne, is to withhold federal funding.   Then, perhaps, the legislature will sit up and enact real reform.

WA stimulus spending: what about reducing traffic?

April 21, 2009 in Blog

If you care about reducing traffic, then you may question how Washington policymakers propose to spend our portion of the $5 billion in stimulus funding.

In order for the various state and local agencies to receive funds, the governor must "certify" the project. In the process, the governor says each project "has received the full review and vetting required by law and that [she] accept[s] responsibility that such investment is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars."

The governor has certified 212 transportation projects for about $622 million in federal stimulus spending.

We could argue all day long about the appropriateness of some of these projects. But ever since the governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation identified about $150 bill!
ion in unmet transportation infrastructure needs, some of these certified projects may raise your eyebrows.

Island Co Bicycle Touring Enhancement
Produce a map identifying bicycle touring routes on both
Whidbey and Camano Islands. Improve shoulders along
approximately 1400' of Crescent Harbor Road in front of
Crescent Harbor Elementary School. Sign the route from
Deception Pass Bridge to the City of Oak Harbor as a "Bike
Route".  $53,329

Lummi Nation Pedestrian Path
Construct approximately 9000 LF of a shared bicycle pedestrian
trail between Kwina road and Slater road east of
Haxton way. $250,000

West Dayton Street Beautification
This enhancement project will add vegetation and an
irrigation system to the West entrance into the City of
Dayton along US 12.  $149,000!

Beards Hollow Overlook
Design an!
d construct beach/ocean overlook at Beards
Hollow on SR Loop 100.  $100,000

LINK Transit
Upgrade shop lighting Upgrade shop lighting.  $50,000

In fact, I went through the list and found about $9.8 million dedicated to sidewalks, $4.7 million for trails, and whopping $77.7 million earmarked for vehicle replacement. Funding is the single largest obstacle in building/maintaining transportation projects, especially at the local level. With population projections expected to reach an additional 1.2 million people and traffic congestion expected to double over the next twenty years, could we not have found more important projects?

Details on sales tax increase proposal

April 21, 2009 in Blog

While the House Health & Human Services Appropriations Committee takes a break from this morning's hearing on the proposed sales tax increase (HB 2377), I'm reading the fiscal note on the bill. Here are a couple things of note:

  • The Department of Revenue will have to dedicate 44 full-time equivalent employees to implement the policies. 
  • General Fund B&O tax receipts will be REDUCED by $3 million and the Performance Audit account will be REDUCED by $67,000 due to reduced sales.
  • "The decrease in the Business and Occupation Tax, Performance Audit Account and Local Government Revenues is due to reduction in taxable sales due to the higher tax rate (elasticity). Elasticities were calculated based on Department of Revenue data."
  • "As a result of elasticity this bill will decrease local government revenues by $12.4 million in the 2010-2011 Biennium and $15.4 million in the 2012-2013 Biennium. In addition there may be negative impacts to local lodging taxes if their combined state and local tax rates will be above their statutory limits."
  • "The Department assumes, based on IRS information that approximately 370,000 persons in Washington who file for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) will apply for a rebate under this legislation in Fiscal Year 2010."
  • "After consultation with the Department of Social and Health Services, the Department assumes that a high proportion of claimants will not have English as their primary language. This requires additional advertising outreach, forms translation, and additional language scripts for the automated phone application system to work most efficiently."
  • "Review of IRS information indicates that there is a higher than average error rate for EITC claims. This higher error rate will require added collection effort for claims paid in error. The Department has assumed that denied claims can be settled with minimal formal appeals. Should experience show otherwise, additional FTEs may be added in later fiscal years to handle the appeals caseload."
  • "It is estimated that costs of approximately $1,515,000 may be incurred in Fiscal Year 2012 as the Department continues to respond to taxpayers questions and submission of applications. No costs have been included in the fiscal note to administer the Working Families' Tax Rebate after Fiscal Year 2011. Current law requires specific legislative appropriations in each biennial budget for the program to continue beyond the 2009-2011 biennium."

Here is additional background on what the chair of the committee thinks about the tax increase and the budget.

USDOT letter to governors

April 20, 2009 in Blog

US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood sent a letter to all fifty governors today, reminding them that any federal stimulus money that is saved from lower than expected costs can remain in the state, but must continue to be spent on other eligible transportation projects.

Across the country, bids are 10-20 percent less than the engineer's estimates....Any Federal dollars that are not used for that particular project must be used for other projects consistent with the Recovery Act appropriation.

LaHood goes on to say:

          Money saved from Recovery Act-funded highway projects, for example, may be used for transit and rail.

Here is the letter.

"Responsible cuts" or "People will die"?

April 20, 2009 in Blog

Compare and contrast the following quotes about the health care priorities of the proposed House budget. Both quotes are from the same lawmaker.

The first is from the March 31 House budget release press conference:

“I really am very proud that the decisions that we made as difficult as they were, were definitely responsible cuts and also again allowed us a body to rise to the occasion to make those difficult decisions.”

The second quote is from the April 17 hearing on a proposed sales tax increase and what might happen if voters don't approve the tax increase to supplement the proposed House budget: 

“Make no doubt about it, people will die . . . If this is not in the voters' interest to pass this (tax) piece, people will die."

As for the proposed tax increase, according to these economists raising taxes during a recession will damage Washington’s economy and hamper economic recovery.

HB 2261 - Education reform in Washington State would not improve school management

April 18, 2009 in Blog
HB 2261, the big education reform plan which may pass the legislature soon, would increase the definition of Basic Education by adding 80 instructional hours, 24 high school credits, five more than the 19 currently funded by the state, all day kindergarten, early education for at-risk children, and other reforms. 
Even if we had the funds to pay for HB 2261, none of these very expensive programs will improve student achievement in Washington State, unfortunately. The bill would support additional centralized, bureaucratic mandates which do not address or correct the reason for Washington's failing schools---that principals are not in charge of their budgets or staff. See the Washington Policy Center Education Reform Plan: "Eight Practical Ways to Reverse the Decline of Public Education."
Think about it: if we raise the $7-8 billion to pay for these programs, will principals have the power to allocate resources to the classroom to raise the effectiveness of the teachers? (Less than 59 cents of every public education dollar actually reaches the classroom and only 45% of public school employees are classroom teachers.) Will principals be able to give bonuses to hard-working teachers so as to create cultures of excellence to replace cultures of mediocrity? Will principals be able to replace ineffective teachers?
The answer to all these questions is NO. We'll have a much more expensive system and achieve the same abysmal results. More money is not the answer---the way we spend current education dollars must be improved. And decentralizing authority, not more unfunded mandates from Olympia, is what is needed in Washington State.  Principals should be given the tools they need to reallocate resources to the classroom, improve the culture of their schools and raise the effectiveness of teachers.

Here comes a 30-40% increase to your property taxes: HB 2261

April 17, 2009 in Blog

HB 2261, the bill which passed the Senate last night, resembles Initiatives 728 (smaller class sizes and other reforms) and Initiative 732 (teacher pay increases).  Here we have yet another expensive, unfocused education spending program without a revenue source. 


This time, however, legislators stand poised to expand the definition of basic education to include a variety of additional programs, costing perhaps as much as $7 to 8 billion.  The legislation provides no fiscal breakdown of the cost categories for this 50% increase to state spending on education.   


Why would we expand the definition of basic education, when we can't even get basic education right? 


HB 2261 sets the stage for shifting the blame for our failing schools to the taxpayer, even though the blame lies squarely with the legislature and with the schools themselves.


I can hear it now:  the schools are failing because you (the taxpayer) won’t agree to an increase of 30-40% to your property taxes. 


Schools can be improved within existing revenues, without HB 2261 spending formulas, without a prototype school model, without CORE 24 or full-day kindergarten.  See our "Eight Practical Ways to Reverse the Decline of Public Schools," at http://www.washingtonpolicy.org/Centers/education/policybrief/Education_Reform_Plan.html.


Taxpayers can instead demand that schools:

1) Put the principal in charge of his budget and staff

2) Give parents choice among public schools

3) Let teachers teach

4) Double teacher pay

5) Replace the WASL

6) Create no-excuses schools

7) Make the Superintendent of Public Instruction an appointed office