Governor Jay Inslee (Courtesy of Governor's Office)
Governor Jay Inslee (Courtesy of Governor's Office)

On Wednesday, Governor Jay Inslee (D-Washington) released his proposed budget for 2020. The budget is supplemental to the one that the state legislature approved this year, running through 2021. The governor is touting his budget as one that would reduce the state homelessness crisis, create a new state equity office, and expand early learning education. The proposed budget, however, does not come with any new revenue sources to sustainably expand government services further and will make adjustments to the transportation budget in response to the passage of I-976which is currently on hold.

The governor said his proposed budget would cut homelessness in half by providing temporary emergency shelter for an additional 2,100 people and other housing assistance to another 3,000 people. This year, Washington reported that it had just under 10,000 unsheltered homeless individuals, which are heavily concentrated in the Central Puget Sound region. Capturing reliable numbers of individuals, however, is notoriously difficult and likely to be a significant undercounting, so the governor’s reduction claim is probably rosier than the reality. On top of that, a heavy reliance on temporary emergency shelter masks the critical need for deeper housing security to put people on a path to long-term housing stability.

To pay for this service expansion, the governor has proposed tapping into the state Rainy Day Fund again–a fund meant to cover budget shortfalls during an economic crisis. The estimated cost for the next year will be an additional $146 million in state expenditures and $300 million more through 2021, which will be drawn from the Rainy Day Fund. That fund is projected to grow to $2.5 billion by the end of 2021; in 2018, it stood at $1.37 billion and was drawn upon for property tax reductions that year.

The governor’s lack of new revenue, such as a capital gains tax on wealthy individuals, to pay for new services is suspect. Governor Inslee is seeking a third term and reelection next year, so perhaps he believes his no-new-revenue plan is a good tactic, even though his name will appear alongside the most unpopular and now impeached president in modern history, which is certain to drag down all Republicans on the ballot and likely precipitate their losses across the state–just like in 2018.

Yesterday, the governor also released his plan to tackle the state rising carbon emissions. His proposal basically boils down to implementing a low-carbon fuel standard–which the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency is pursuing regionallystatewide through the Washington State Department of Ecology, incentives for electric vehicles and electric vehicle charging stations, an emissions standard for ridehailing services, a new tax incentive for solar projects, and more ambitious statutory carbon emission reduction goals. No mention was made on investing in the best solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions efficiently and imminently in the transportation system–walking, biking, and transit–and using economic sticks and carrots to reduce vehicle miles traveled, particularly by carbon-intensive vehicles.

The governor has routinely tried to get the gridlocked state legislature, now under control by his own party, to seriously tackle climate change during his tenure. However, his party has more often than not opted to seek very modest progress and symbolic gestures–far short of what is necessary to reach the state’s carbon emission reduction targets–because center-right Democrats representing suburban and rural areas have been dragging their feet. State greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, increasing yet another 6% in the most recent estimates. The primary culprit for emissions in the state is the transportation sector followed by buildings, which of course, both dovetail with land use, an inconvenient truth that state legislators must face.

The greenhouse gas emission reduction goals that the governor wants to achieve would help the state contribute to a worldwide goal to lock-in no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius in global warming by the year 2100. As proposed by the governor, the greenhouse gas emissions target would change to 45% below 1990 levels by 2030, 70% below 1990 levels by 2040, and net zero emissions by 2050 by reaching 95% below 1990 levels and pairing that with sequestration techniques. Existing state law states that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020, 25% below 1990 levels by 2035, and 50% below 1990 levels by 2050 or 70% below the state’s emissions that year, though the 2020 goal has already been resoundingly failed. The governor’s proposal seems similar to Representative Vandana Slatter’s (D-48, Bellevue) bill from earlier this year, which never made it out of the committee process in its house of origin.

In terms of the transportation budget, there appears to be some changes to line-items and top-line budget increases and decreases across the board. Much of this is in response to increasing state revenues but also pauses on projects due to I-976.

Tim Eyman’s initiative, I-976, is stuck in the courts and has been blocked from implementation for now, but the governor is asking that revenues collected from car tabs fees for the state go to a special holding account as if I-976 were in effect. The purpose is to be able to return money to fee payers if the courts ultimately rule that the state must issue refunds. That could send state legislators the wrong signal who want to issue refunds anyway.

Last month, the governor declared that various transportation projects would be put on hold temporarily since some were directly affected by I-976 and others may need to be delayed to shift money to other transportation priorities. These included both highway expansion projects and transit investments. Transit projects that are being held until the next biennium cycle include:

  • Ben Franklin Transit’s West Pasco Multimodal Hub, Duportail Multimodal Hub, and Downtown Pasco Multimodal Hub;
  • Several projects benefiting King County Metro, such as the Kent RapidRide access and passenger improvements, improvements to NW Market St and N/NE 45th St in Seattle, RapidRide H Line in Burien, and Route 40 upgrades;
  • River Cities Transit’s Lexington Connector Express; and
  • Spokane’s Liberty Lake Shuttle and Cheney high-capacity transit corridor improvements.

Other Specific top-line items and line-items throughout the 2019-2021 transportation budget are proposed to changes as follow:

  • The Public Transportation program will be reduced by nearly $3 million from $261.87 to $259.03 million. This will be particularly acute for the state Regional Mobility Grant Program Account, which will be reduced from $96.63 million to $83.20 million affecting originally promised projects spelled out in a project list approved this year. Aside from outright cuts, this money appears to be shifting to the general state Multimodal Transportation Account, which will increase from $128.55 million to $139.15 million, saving some projects. But all things equal, the public transportation funds are getting cut. Funding for vanpools is going down from $10.29 million to $1.38 million as part of the Multimodal Transportation Account. Another $6.37 million will be allocated to fund administration of ORCA card benefits for state employees. Several notable transit projects will get extra funding though largely by biennium funding shifts from the prior, such as: Pierce Transit’s Route 1 bus rapid transit upgrades ($12.9 million more); Metro’s Northgate access improvements ($573,000 more), Eastlake off-street bus layover facility ($293,000 more), Renton-to-Auburn bus speed and reliability project ($379,000 more), and other speed and reliability projects ($400,000 more); and Kitsap Transit’s Silverdale Transit Center ($1.56 million more).
  • The Marine program will be increased by nearly $10 million from $549.05 million to $558.86 million. This will benefit the Puget Sound Ferry Operations Account by raising it from $540.75 million to $ to $550.56 million.
  • The Rail-Operations program will get a very modest cut of $13,000 to $76.78 million. This program generally benefit intercity passenger rail operations.
  • The Rail-Capital program will get a small increase, rising $3.89 million from $103.89 to $107.78 million. A line-item change also includes Amtrak Cascades intercity passenger rail, which continues to authorize $10 million in expenditures. The changes will remove language that suggests the state should acquire “new train sets” and instead replace it with “replacement equipment,” which may be indicative of the state department of transportation’s desire to acquire unused but newish Talgo 8 trainsets in storage back in Wisconsin. The line-item change also allows funding to be used to make recovery and corrective actions related to the December 2017 derailment near DuPont.
  • The Local Programs-Operating program will get a small cut of $3,000 to $15.236 million. This program generally benefits local transit, walking, and biking projects.
  • The Local Programs-Capital program will increase by $99.87 million from $334.24 million to $434.11 million. However, the pedestrian, bicycle, and Safe Routes to School subprogram will get a small cut of $675,000, going from $25.070 million to $24.395 million. Additionally, a variety of trail projects will be zeroed out and paused until the 2021-2023 biennium, including the Clinton to Ken’s Corner Trail ($860,000), Edmonds Waterfront Connector ($650,000), Centennial Trail Connector-Phase 3 ($463,000), Columbia River Renaissance Trail Connection ($500,000), and Wilburton Trestle ($2.5 million).
  • The Washington State Ferries Construction program will increase by nearly $90 million from $449.88 million to $540.97 million. Capital construction for the Colman Ferry Dock in Seattle will see a big jump as part of this, increasing $35.50 million from $114.96 million to $150.46 million. Likewise, additional funding will go to the Mukilteo Ferry Terminal, increasing $5.54 million from $61.11 million to $66.65 million. The remainder of the funding increase is largely unrestricted.

Whether or not Governor Inslee’s budget proposals come anywhere close to what he hopes into law is unpredictable. Many Democrats already appear paralyzed by upcoming elections and some are readily willing to bargain away their otherwise dominant position. So it is anyone’s guess on what happens in the next legislative session with a chaotic caucus.

Article Author

Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.