In the face of economic turmoil and a projected $5.1 billion state budget shortfall, business advocates here say their wish list for the Washington Legislature's upcoming session includes a stimulus package of capital improvements, expanded local revenue options, and a delay in new state programs they say will be costly to business.
"New money will be hard to acquire, except for transportation and capital projects that are the most doable," says Rich Hadley, president and CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated.
Still, among GSI's list of legislative priorities are a host of Spokane-area projects, ranging from design money for a proposed $45 million building on the Riverpoint Campus to a $4 million request for a major renovation of the main ski lodge at Mount Spokane. GSI and others also will lobby for state policy changes aimed at reducing costs for businesses and giving communities better tools to boost economic development.
Among capital projects, the long-sought north-south freeway project, known formally as the North Spokane Corridor, still tops the transportation agenda, Hadley says.
Although GSI originally had intended to request that $300 million be allocated to the project during the next biennium, Hadley says the organization now recognizes that such a request might be too aggressive.
"Now, it might take six years instead of the next two" to get that much funding, Hadley says.
Separately, GSI and local legislators proposed changes to the next phase of the big project that would cut costs dramatically in the near term, in hopes of keeping the pace of construction on track with less money.
Hadley says he's optimistic the project will continue to move forward, especially given talk about possible infrastructure stimulus packages that states may craft using federal money.
"Looking ahead, the land for right of way is already purchased and shovel-ready," he says. "That should make it rise to the top of the funding list at the federal level."
Other transportation funding requests on GSI's legislative agenda include $12.5 million for a proposed interchange on U.S. 195 at Spokane-Cheney Road in the Latah Valley, and $25.7 million to reconstruct Barker Road to pass over railroad tracks and state Route 290 in Spokane Valley as part of a multiyear initiative known as Bridging the Valley.
Meanwhile, Spokane Mayor Mary Verner says the city will ask the Legislature for help in its own efforts to boost economic development here.
Verner says the city will seek money from the governor's Strategic Reserve Fund to invest in infrastructure in an undeveloped portion of the Spokane International Airport Business Park. The city hopes to attract businesses to the land, which is adjacent to the regional waste-to-energy facility and is seen as a possible draw to industries that could take advantage of the electrical power and steam generated by the incinerator, she says.
The incinerator, located at 2900 S. Geiger, opened in 1991 and is operated by Hampton, N.H.-based Wheelabrator Spokane Inc. under a contract that will expire in 2011. The city also is part owner, with Spokane County, of Spokane International Airport and its business park there.
"We're looking ahead to what opportunities we have to maximize the regional asset," Verner says of the waste-to-energy facility. "The facility is not used to full capacity. We have an opportunity for growth in the industrial park next to the airport."
The city, along with the Association of Washington Business and GSI, also will ask the Legislature to modify voter-approved Initiative 937 to include energy produced at the waste-to-energy plant in its definition of renewable energy.
"We're not requesting money for that," Verner says. "We're asking for a change in the law."
The three also want all hydropower generated in the state to be designated as renewable energy, which would help utilities statewide, including the city of Spokane, which operates the Upriver Dam on the Spokane River, meet renewable power goals in the initiative.
In addition, Verner says the city will ask the Legislature to renew and expand allowed uses of local-option economic-development incentives, such as the Local Infrastructure Finance Tool the state enacted for limited use in 2006, already being used by Liberty Lake. A form of tax-increment financing, LIFT allows certain infrastructure projects to be funded through bonds that would be paid off through increases in sales and use taxes sparked by the infrastructure's development.
The city will seek broader use of LIFT, which is currently limited to one project per county.
"We're asking for tools to come up with our own packages through local incentives," she says.
Don Brunell, president of the Olympia-based Association of Washington Businesses, says that advocacy group's biggest message to the Legislature this year is that state government will need to prioritize spending even more than it has in the past.
"The whole focus of the Legislature is going to be money," Brunell says. "It's not likely to be solved simply by raising taxes."
He says AWB will ask the Legislature to hold off on approving planned new state programs that aren't funded yet.
For instance, the Family Leave Act of 2007 "is on the books, but has no funding source," he says. The act mandates six weeks of paid family leave for people, employed by businesses with 50 or more employees, who have or adopt a child.
"Things are going to be tough for a couple of years," Brunell says. "We're saying to put new programs on ice. Don't do them."
Other programs the state should reconsider due to lack of funding include climate-change legislation and expected proposals for additional cleanup of Puget Sound, he contends.
"As far as businesses are concerned, any new assessment, whether a tax or a fee, would come out of the same checking account," he says. "The Legislature and governor have to see the cumulative impact of all costs and mitigate them as best they can."
The association also will urge the Legislature to find ways to reduce unemployment insurance costs, which are among the highest in the nation, Brunell says. Unemployment insurance costs Washington state employers more than twice as much per employee as the national average, he asserts.
AWB and GSI will ask the Legislature to work to keep workers' compensation insurance low for small businesses. The groups also will ask lawmakers to modify what's known as the small-business health-care connector, which would pool coverage for low-income employees, to ensure that the connector won't inhibit options for businesses that already offer health-care coverage.
Brunell says a state economic stimulus package could ensure that construction projects, such as those planned on college campuses, will proceed, or possibly even accelerate.
"Under a stimulus program we will see development of infrastructure and buildings," he says.
Community Colleges of Spokane (CCS), for instance, has nine projects with a total estimated cost of $155 million in various stages of planning.
"Those projects come out of a different budget," he says. "They are bonded out of the capital budget."
Gary Livingston, chancellor of CCS, says most such construction projects are financed through bonds on a 20-year cycle.
"We don't think those will be affected," Livingston says. "There's even some chance that capital projects might receive a timeline boost."
Among the capital projects GSI is supporting in the Legislature this year is a $250,000 request for pre-design money for a health-sciences building at the Riverpoint Campus near downtown that would be a joint project of Washington State University and Eastern Washington University, Hadley says.
The proposed 86,000-square-foot building, which would cost about $45 million, would include an animal research facility, an applied science laboratory, and infrastructure for high-performance computing.
Other nontransportation capital projects on GSI's priority list include:
$4.9 million for the planned $33 million Mobius Science Center at the planned Michael Anderson Plaza on the north side of the Spokane River, just north of Riverfront Park.
$3.5 million toward two buildings being developed by the YMCA and YWCA here, which will have a combined project cost of $40.5 million.
$2 million in capital funds and $4.7 million in operating funds for the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.
$1 million for a pedestrian and bike bridge over the railroad tracks that lie between the Riverpoint Campus and Sprague Avenue in the so-called University District.
$1.8 million toward a $7.7 million project to expand the Northeast Community Center, and another $150,000 for a $1.1 million expansion of the East Central Community Center.
$980,000 toward Spokane Public Radio's planned new facility, which is expected to cost $11.9 million.
Outside of capital projects, state-funded colleges and universities are bracing for reductions in funding. CCS, for instance, is expecting reductions of up to 20 percent, or $12 million, but will ask the Legislature to keep affordable tuition available.
"We're on a collision course with more needs and less money," Livingston says. "We're concerned with keeping our tuition reasonable so our students aren't priced out. Community college students are the most needy, and people being laid off come right to community colleges."
Meanwhile, GSI supports a request by WSU for $1 million for additional enrollment in its nursing programs through a program that would shorten the time to graduation for qualified students to 15 months from 24 months.
EWU and CCS are requesting $825,000 for maintenance and operation of the Riverpoint One Building, at 501 N. Riverpoint Blvd., which the colleges plan to buy from the private Community Colleges of Spokane Foundation and use for additional classroom space.
Other noncapital requests groups here will seek from the Legislature include:
$10.3 million to support several initiatives to expand health-care services here by Inland Northwest Health Services.
$4.1 million in operating funds for Sirti.
$1.5 million in operating funds for WSU's Applied Science Laboratory here.
$2 million to further health-care informatics educational and research programs here, led by WSU and INHS.
$1.3 million to hire four staff scientists at WSU here to perform contract research for private businesses and federal agencies.
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