Rep. Mike Volz and Rep. Keith Goehner: Fiscal responsibility and addressing transportation needs can co-exist
The pandemic has been harmful to many aspects of our state. One thing that has not suffered is Washington state's revenue. Tax collections, from you the taxpayer, have remained strong despite everything our economy, businesses, and families have had to endure.
Along with the record revenues, state spending has nearly doubled over the last decade. Going into a short session the governor has proposed an extremely large supplemental operating budget. His plan would spend an additional $8.8 billion over the next four years, increasing spending by 19% over the 2019-21 operating budget.
Despite the massive spending increase over the last decade, our state still has glaring needs going unaddressed, including our transportation system. We need to address current needs before spending more dollars on new programs, especially when it comes to transportation.
A recent study by the Reason Foundation ranked Washington state 42nd in the nation in highway performance and cost-effectiveness. The study also confirmed that the state spends far more per mile of road than most states.
In addition, Washington state is unable to keep up with road maintenance and preservation. Bridges are old and expensive to replace, many construction projects have been delayed, and railways are outdated. Also, state ferries are operating at drastically reduced levels of service and are asking for hundreds of millions of dollars to be added to their $1 billion budget.
Our state's operating and transportation spending plans are two different budgets. For decades, transportation-related activities have been paid for mostly by drivers through fees and gas taxes. With more fuel-efficient vehicles, electric cars, and more people working from home, gas-tax revenue is declining at an alarming rate.
It is time for a new approach to fund transportation. Last session, we succeeded in getting an amendment into the transportation budget directing the Washington State Transportation Commission to look at additional revenue options for transportation that are not based on raising fees on drivers or increasing the gas tax. It had strong bipartisan support. Both sides of the aisle agreed we need to find other sources of revenue for transportation projects.
Unfortunately, the governor vetoed the language calling it an “unfunded study” despite the directive falling in line with the commission's roles and responsibilities. The veto was disappointing as the policy was a proactive approach to having a more in-depth conversation about creating a resilient and sustainable transportation budget for the future.
The recent transportation proposals from the majority party are nothing new – massive spending plans revolving around raising the gas tax and numerous vehicle fees. At a time when our citizens are paying higher gas prices and feeling the pain of inflation, why not study other options or come up with a different approach?
To that end, House Republicans in the state Legislature are sponsoring the Reprioritizing Existing Appropriations for Longevity (REAL) Act, House Bill 1603. The plan would create a sustainable and equitable transportation funding model, instead of continuing to rely on a funding system with declining revenues.
The REAL Act steps away from the old, antiquated way of thinking about transportation and budgeting. Our plan would:
- Allow certain transportation programs to be paid for by the general fund (which has a huge surplus) starting in 2025.
- Direct state sales tax paid on motor vehicles to be used for preservation and maintenance of the existing transportation system.
- Investigate a shift of the Safe Routes to School program to OSPI with direction to better coordinate funding for safe pathways to new schools.
- Transfer sales tax paid on transportation projects to the transportation budget.
One of state government's fundamental jobs is to take care of its transportation infrastructure. We can do that and still be fiscally responsible and efficient with taxpayer dollars. Our proposal puts us on a path to accomplish that goal while being more efficient with taxpayer dollars. It is time to get “REAL” about transportation in Washington.
(Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane, is the assistant ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee. Rep. Keith Goehner, R-Dryden, is the ranking Republican on the House Local Government Committee and also serves on the House Transportation committee.)