In a local version of GM head Charlie Wilson's famous aphorism, we have to ask: Is what's good for the UW good for the city? A batch of Seattle legislators in Olympia sure think so.

But the ledger isn't so clear. Legislation sponsored by state Sen. Ed Murray (D-43, Capitol Hill) to exempt the University of Washington from Seattle's commercial parking tax comes with a side effect: an estimated drop in revenue to the city of $3 million a year—and $1.8 million to finish out the current year.

Erica has covered this issue at length before, including the her story documenting that high Metro costs, not the commercial parking tax, were hurting the UPass program, and a story on an amendment to add hospitals to the exemption. (The bill's proponents claim the tax will undermine the UW's UPass program which is funded by parking taxes.)

Despite the hit to the city's precarious budget, the bill—which passed out of the transportation committee on February 25 and is currently in the rules committee queue—has the support of much of the Seattle's senate and house delegation, including Sen. Scott White (D-46, N. Seattle), Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36, Ballard), Sen. Adam Kline (D-37, S. Seattle), Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney (D-46, N. Seattle), Rep. David Frockt (D-46, N. Seattle), and the bill's sponsor, Murray, who tells PubliCola that supporting the biggest employer in the city creates jobs and wealth that far outweigh the $3 million hit.

Dead set against the bill? The mayor and the Seattle city council—which rejected the idea of exempting the UW when the city  initially passed the tax earlier this year.

Now that UW is appealing to a higher authority, the state, and the mayor and council all signed a letter to state legislators last week objecting to the idea of an exemption.

It begins:
As you well know, public services at all levels are hurting. The State faces the impossible task of balancing a budget that keeps getting worse, public schools are laying off teachers, transit agencies are cutting services, and colleges are closing programs. Local governments face the same challenges. Seattle closed a $67 million shortfall last year with a range of painful cuts, and we face further cuts this year. These budget difficulties are one of many reasons we oppose SB 5541. Although we support the University of Washington’s U-Pass program, SB 5541 will not fix the U-Pass’s problems, is unfair to other organizations, and will take crucial funds from infrastructure projects and important programs. In short, it creates more problems than it solves.

The letter goes on to point out that  backfilling from the general fund to the tune of $3 million would sabotage city programs. It also points out that other larger institutions pay the commercial parking tax.

Rep. Frockt says that even though he co-sponsored the legislation in the house (which is now dead), he will wait to see what comes over from the senate and will take a "closer look" to see if the fiscal impact on the city is worth his support.

White, who challenged Clark at the hearing, tells PubliCola, "reducing local government revenue streams in this budget climate is not something I take lightly," adding that with the university and city officials meeting this week, "I am hopeful that we might not even need a bill."

White says the upside of the legislation is that it "would save the UW $1.8 million per year in funds that can be applied to the UPass," adding,"the bill in its current form will also help reduce congestion and the city’s carbon footprint in the future by requiring that at least 110 percent of parking proceeds be invested into a commute trip reduction program."

Murray tells PubliCola the bill is crucial because it protects the "economic engine of the city"—UW. "One way to pay for social services" by creating tax revenues,  Murray says, "is to support jobs. The UW is the biggest generator of jobs in the city."

That's true. And also provides some extra drama here. Murray himself (and White) work for the UW. Both are project managers in the Office of the Vice Provost for Planning and Budgeting.

Murray's sponsorship of the legislation showcases a recurring dilemma in the state's citizen legislature, where reps and senators sponsor, defend, or oppose legislation that often involves the institutions they work for.

While some legislators have raised their eyebrows over Murray's sponsorship of this bill, he responds saying "legislators have jobs ... and legislators tend to work on issues in Olympia that they work in at their real jobs." Murray says the bill was "brought to me by students over the summer concerned about the survival of the Upass and implications of losing that program."

"There are times when I'm incredibly critical of the UW and there are times when I'm not," Murray says. "I don't get calls from you complaining that I work at the UW when we radically cut their funding, like I did earlier in this month [as ways and means chair] or when I fought them on 520." (Murray fought for a multi-modal transit hub at the UW, which the university opposed, as part of the 520 bill.)

"I don't get calls when I fought to extend UW's responibility for student behavoir north of 45th."

There are, of course, numerous other examples in the legislature where legislators' jobs raise conflict of interest questions: Rep. Richard DeBolt (R-20, Chehalis), the Republican house leader, works for TransAlta, and has consistently fought legislation to kill their tax break and shut down their Centralia coal plant. Rep. Eileen Cody (D-34) is a nurse at Group Health and also the chair of the house health care committee. House speaker Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43, Wallingford) is the former president (and now senior advisor) for the housing advocacy group Solid Ground while adamantly defending housing money in the state budget.

In a quaint version, Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-33, Des Moines), a part-time amateur basketball ref, sponsored and passed a bill out of the house this session that helped the Pacific Northwest Basketball Officials Association get out of paying unemployment insurance.

We have calls in to the rest of the Seattle's delegation who are supporting the bill as well as Seattle legislators, like transit green Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, W. Seattle, Burien), who have not signed on.

The house version of the bill, which went nowhere, was sponsored by Rep. Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds).
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