OLYMPIA, Wash. – Ballots are arriving in the mail. And a new poll shows the race for Washington governor is a virtual dead heat. Whoever is elected will inherit a budget shortfall along with a court order to spend more on education.
Just like in the rest of the country, jobs and the economy are top issues for Washington voters. But so is transportation. Traditionally, Washington has relied on the gas tax to fund road projects. But it’s been seven years since the last gas tax increase was enacted. Both candidates for governor agree the time has come to ask voters to approve a new transportation funding package. Republican Rob McKenna is in the sooner-rather-than-later camp.
“I’ve already had discussions with key transportation leaders in the legislature and some of them hope that a package could be brought out as early as November of 2013. That would certainly be my preference.”
How big a funding package? McKenna says “more than a few billion dollars” for maintenance of existing roads, safety improvements, mega projects, congestion relief and local transit.
Democrat Jay Inslee won’t talk price tag. And he thinks next fall is probably optimistic.
“If I was going to say ‘likely’ I’d probably think it’s probably going to be the next year.”
What’s clear is a gas tax increase alone probably won’t be enough. Cars get better mileage today and that revenue is less reliable. Earlier this year, a Governor’s taskforce produced a lengthy list of alternative funding options. They include a British Columbia-style levy on the carbon content of fuels. Inslee appears open to that idea.
“It’s not too distinguishable from a tax on gasoline, right? What I have said is we should not take things off the table going into this exercise to try to develop a bipartisan consensus.”
McKenna though is wary of a go-it-alone strategy to new transportation taxes.
“It’s hard for one state to enact a carbon tax without putting itself at a serious competitive disadvantage. So, we can certainly look at that and I’ll look to see what the legislature thinks about it but so far the legislature hasn’t been willing to adopt such a tax.”
One issue Washington’s next governor will have to make a priority is education funding. The Supreme Court recently ruled the state is underfunding K-12. The new governor will have come up with an additional $1 billion for schools over the next two years. That’s on top of a projected $1 billion shortfall in the general budget. That means more tough decisions ahead.
For instance whether to restore a three-percent pay cut state employees took in the last budget. Republican McKenna says he’d like to.
“But I’m not guaranteeing we’re going to be able to do that," he says. "It would be irresponsible to make commitments before I’ve had a chance to go in and do my own work on the budget.”
Inslee sidestepped the question of state worker pay. But he does have the backing of the Washington Federation of State Employees. What both candidates do agree on is that health care costs are cannibalizing the state budget. They vow to reverse that trend.
Inslee says he can do that without cutting services – rather through savings. He points to preventive health care saving health dollars.
Inslee highlights Seattle’s King County where an incentive program for employees to get healthy is projected to help save $60 million over two years. McKenna also has a plan to make healthcare more efficient. He also proposes to cap all non-education spending at 3 percent a year.
Budget writers in the legislature – both Democrat and Republican – say there’s no way to balance the budget and fund education without further cuts to services. Unless, of course, you raise taxes – something both candidates have said is off the table.
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