The city's in-house lobbying shop, the Office of Intergovernmental Relations, briefed council members this morning on the state of the city's agenda in Olympia, the first in a series of weekly briefings that will continue throughout the legislative session.
This year's update came with a twist: Because of the Senate takeover by the Republican-led "Majority Coalition Caucus," the outlook for many of Seattle's priority bills is more dour than expected, which is saying a lot, given the state's $900 million revenue shortfall and the approximately $1 billion price tag of the state supreme court's McCleary ruling requiring legislators to adequately fund K-12 education.
"We're still not quite sure what the Majority Coalition Caucus will mean for Seattle" Craig Engelking, state legislative director for the city's lobbying office, said. "We are starting to see new bills that we ... haven't seen get a hearing in a number of years" being scheduled for hearings—bills, in other words, that have traditionally been to the right of the senate mainstream.
"We're still not quite sure what the Majority Coalition Caucus will mean for the city of Seattle's agenda," Craig Engelking, state legislative director for the city's Office of Intergovernmental Relations, told the council. "We are starting to see new bills that we actually haven't seen get a hearing in a number of years" being scheduled for hearings—bills, in other words, that have traditionally been to the right of the senate mainstream.
Engelking also pointed out that the McCleary decision will put education funding directly in conflict with funding to meet unmet maintenance needs on the state's crumbling roads and bridges—and with most gas-tax dollars in the state already locked up paying for ongoing capital (road-building) projects, the state needs to find a new, stable funding source just to keep the existing transportation system running. "There is definitely momentum building for a new transportation revenue package," but that could end up conflicting with other priorities, Engelking said.
For example: Former Gov. Chris Gregoire's budget, which newly elected Gov. Jay Inslee will revisit, includes a call for a wholesale tax on gas and diesel fuel to pay for school buses. "That puts transportation and education right together in one conversation," Engelking said. "They're all tied up in one knot. How that unwinds over the session will be the key dynamic for how they address education and what are the prospects for actually funding transportation.
"It was very clear, just during the first week, that we have tremendous needs on education and transportation and that their fates are linked."
Although Engelking didn't offer council member Mike O'Brien much hope when the former Sierra Club leader-turned-green Council mebmer asked about the prospects for a state carbon tax, he did mention the state Department of Transportation's recent consideration of a vehicle mileage fee, which would respond to dwindling gas tax revenues by charging drivers based on how many miles they drive.
A smaller piece of transportation legislation—the so-called Safe Streets Bill, which would make it easier for cities to lower speed limits within their borders—is likely to get a favorable hearing in the house (where it passed unanimously last year), Engelking said, but its prospects in the senate (where transportation committee chair Mary Margaret Haugen, who was ousted last November, killed it last year) are uncertain.
Finally, the Association of Washington Businesses is back with legislation that would consolidate the collection of cities' business and occupation taxes at the state level—legislation the city has estimated could cost it upward of $40 million a year.
In response to the AWB's proposal, five of the state's largest cities are developing a "portal" where businesses could enter all their tax information in a single place instead of having to file multiple times in the various jurisdictions where they operate.