In Washington, DC they’re called earmarks: the money members of Congress put in the budget for projects back home. In Washington state, there’s a more genteel term: member requests.
This year they returned to pre-recession levels: nearly $180 million worth of them in the state’s new two-year capital construction budget.
On the Washington Coast, a new beach town has sprung up called Seabrook. It’s getting a lot of media buzz – like from Evening Magazine, which calls it "the fastest growing vacation-destination spot in all of the Northwest.”
The quaint village-like town embraces a concept called “new urbanism.” Front porches, community fire pits and everything you need within walking or biking distance.
But Tim Kerr – who owns a second home at Seabrook – thought something was missing: an Oceanside bike and walking path that would link the upscale Seabrook with its faded neighbor to the north: Pacific Beach.
“Those two communities needed to be connected to create basically one community,” Kerr says.
But a path between the two isn’t cheap. There’s a creek to cross. A pedestrian bridge would have to be built. A preliminary estimate put the price tag at $4.5 million for a single mile of path.
Still, Kerr pitched the idea to his state senator and friend: Democrat Ed Murray, who’s currently running for mayor of Seattle. Both men were born in Grays Harbor County and Murray was intrigued by the proposal.
“A bike trail in one of the most depressed counties in the state seemed like a really good economic development project,” he says.
So Murray put in a member request for money in the state capital construction budget to get the bike trail project going.
“Sometimes it is the seed money that the state puts down that attracts the private money, that attracts the local government money,” Murray explains.
In the end, the Seabrook Trail got $437,000 in start-up money.
This is but one small example of the dozens of member earmarks inserted into Washington’s new capital budget. For context it’s a $3.6 billion budget and these member requests represent just 5 percent of that total. Still most of this is borrowed money.
“Legislators want their constituents to know they’re working for them and so the visibility of a project in the capital budget helps,” explains veteran Democratic State Senator Karen Fraser – who used to write the capital budget.
There’s also this: the bond bill that funds the capital budget requires a 60 percent vote to pass.
“There are those that say ‘well I’m not going to vote for that unless my project is there,’” says Republican Jim Honeyford is, current capital budget chair in the Washington Senate.
“So you essentially end up buying votes to pass the bond bill to pass the capital budget,” he says.
Honeyford’s counterpart in the House, Democrat Hans Dunshee, puts it another way. “The problem is that the more votes you need the more people you have to make happy.”
And here’s the thing. Unlike most projects in the capital budget, member requests are not formally vetted and prioritized in any systematic way. Although Dunshee does require House members to submit formal applications.
“We’re not just going to write a check to Uncle Bert,” he says.
But as more than one lawmaker analogized to me, member requests are kind of like Christmas presents under the tree. Republican Michael Baumgartner, vice chair of the Senate budget committee, says “I think the Capital budget vote is very much a Christmas morning vote. People run downstairs, they look did they get their projects and they’re basically focusing on the Christmas presents that they open.”
Baumgartner admits, he does the same thing. There’s some good stuff under that tree. But he’s worried about the long term implications. And he’s not alone.
Most of the capital budget is funded by borrowed money that gets paid back over 25 years. So really, $180 million in member requests in the current budget will cost taxpayers more like $250 million to pay off. Already, Washington state spends a $1 billion per year in debt service – that’s money that’s not going to schools or other state priorities.
Senator Baumgartner thinks everyone: the public, politicians need to stop and think about that.
“Legislators are under a lot of pressure to request projects from their constituents," he says. "But I think even the constituents don’t want to the entire system to be broken.”
Baumgartner has proposed to “out” legislators by requiring a public list of member request projects by district.
Senator Fraser, the former capital budget writer, would like to see a more thorough vetting process for projects. She says over the years some doozies have gotten through. But she also thinks there’s a place for member requests.
“So this is a tension," she says. "Who should prioritize? The elected legislators? Employees of a state agency? The governor? Who? And so this is your political process for you.”
As for the Seabrook trail, backer Tim Kerr has a unique perspective on all this. Turns out in a past life he managed Washington’s bond program as a Deputy State Treasurer. He believes even local projects can have a stimulus effect that justifies the cost of borrowing.
But until he finds the rest of the funding for the trail, the state money he helped secure can’t be spent.
On the Web:
Washington state capital construction budget - Washington Legislature