Spokane-area interests are working to inform lawmakers about their priorities as the state Legislature prepares to convene its 2018 session, which they say will focus heavily on passing a capital budget and continuing education mandates.
The Legislature adjourned in July without passing the $4.1 billion 2017-19 capital budget, which includes tens of millions of dollars for projects in Eastern Washington.
Greater Spokane Incorporated, which acts as the Spokane area’s chamber of commerce and economic development agency, is advocating for passage of a capital budget, as it’s necessary for the funding of critical infrastructure and community projects.
“There are a lot of significant projects that impact the area in that capital budget, including funding needed for school construction projects and continued compliance with the McCleary decision,” says Todd Mielke, CEO of GSI.
One issue that led to the Legislature’s failure to pass a capital budget last session was an inability to agree on a water-rights bill to address a Washington state Supreme Court ruling known as the Hirst decision. The ruling effectively limits new domestic water wells, leaving property owners in many rural areas without access to water and unable to build homes on their property.
“Water availability is another issue that’s critical for economic development,” says Mielke. “Most housing development takes place outside the city, and we can’t meet the demand for housing without a resolution of the Hirst decision.”
In addition to supporting a quick resolution to the Hirst decision, Mielke says GSI also supports a business-and-occupation tax reduction for manufacturers, which was passed by the Legislature last year, but vetoed by Gov. Jay Inslee.
The bill would have lowered the tax rate by 40 percent for some 10,000 manufacturers across the state.
“We feel the B&O tax reduction is critical for manufacturers to stay competitive in the work that they do,” says Mielke.
Mark Anderson, Spokane Public Schools’ associate superintendent for school support services, says one of the top priorities for SPS is to ensure full implementation of the state’s education funding plan as required by the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.
The ruling requires more funding for education, which the state estimates will cost a total of $19.7 billion for the 2017-2019 biennium.
“We want to be sure it continues to provide ample funding for basic education,” he says. “We’d also like ask the Legislature to consider providing more funding for special education students, as well as increasing the funding allocation for school nurses.”
The McCleary decision also requires the state to provide funding to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grades to no more than 17 students per teacher next year.
Anderson says SPS would like to petition the Legislature to delay that funding until Spokane schools are able to support those reductions.
“For Spokane, we have funding for staff but not for facilities,” he says. “We’re still the equivalent of about three elementary schools short of having enough classroom space to have those size classes.”
Anderson says SPS supports passage of a fully funded capital budget, as that would ensure funding for additional classroom space to accommodate the reduction in class sizes.
“Currently, we’re front funding two bond projects (renovation of Franklin Elementary, and replacement of Linwood Elementary) which have state matching funds included in the capital budget,” he says.
He adds, “We’re also requesting additional state capital funding for adding classrooms to meet reduction of class size as outlined in McCleary.”
Anderson says if the matter of funding for the Franklin and Linwood Elementary projects is not resolved, other projects in the district’s 2015 bond, which aren’t receiving state matched funds, might be delayed.
While he says GSI agrees that most issues relating to the McCleary decision were addressed last legislative session, Mielke says the organization does feel there are still some areas that need further clarification.
“In particular, we’re focused on restoring funding for career and technical education,” he says.
Mielke says GSI also is seeking funding for programs that help to develop the talent pool for workers in high-growth careers, and those that improve access to financial assistance for students, including the State Need Grant.
The State Need Grant program helps the state’s lowest-income undergraduate students pursue degrees, hone skills, or retrain for new careers. Students can use the grants at eligible institutions in Washington.
“In the area of higher education, we’re supportive of financial aid pieces that provide access to people to improve their talents, and the State Need Grant is significant in helping with that,” he says.
GSI also continues to support legislative funding for construction of Eastern Washington University’s Interdisciplinary Science Center, the Plant Sciences building on Washington State University’s Pullman campus, as well as WSU’s Global Animal Health Phase II project.
In terms of health care, Mielke says GSI continues to support educational partnerships and lobby the Legislature for funding to support health science programs and students pursuing health care professions.
Such support would include second-year bridge funding for the University of Washington’s Regional Initiatives in Dental Education program, and legislation that would add WSU’s College of Medicine to the Family Medicine Education Advisory Board.
With possible changes in store for the Affordable Care Act, Mielke says GSI also is concerned with ensuring health care remains accessible and affordable.
“Our main concern is making sure any measures passed preserve access to both health insurance and care, as well as keeping both affordable for employers and employees,” he says.
“Access to mental health care is also important, as it impacts what our communities look like,” he adds. “Many Pacific Northwest cities are struggling with homeless and mental health issues, and that carries over to the safety of our communities and costs for criminal justice.”
Spokane City Councilwoman Amber Waldref says this legislative session, the city is coordinating with Spokane County to seek support for two priorities related to mental health; one being providing a crisis mental health intervention and diversion program for nonviolent offenders, and the other being creation of an accelerated rehabilitation and community safety program, which would also serve to divert nonviolent offenders from incarceration.
Regarding transportation projects, Mielke says GSI’s first priority is to ensure funding for the North Spokane Corridor remains in place.
“Starting this year, we’ll begin seeing a ramp-up of activity and dollars spent, so we want to make sure that project stays on track both time and budget-wise,” he says.
The final series of construction projects on the corridor is scheduled begin next year and continue until the entire project is completed in 2029.
So far, the north half of the 10.5-mile corridor has been completed at a cost of $615 million.
The cost to extend the corridor from its current end point near Francis Avenue to its connection with Interstate 90 is an estimated $879 million, which was included in the Connecting Washington package passed by the Legislature and signed by Inslee in 2015.
Mielke says GSI also continues to support Spokane-area projects like the bridge installation at Barker Road, in Spokane Valley, and the addition of new passing lanes on to ease congestion and improve safety on state routes 904 and 290 and U.S. 395.
City of Spokane Valley spokeswoman Carolbelle Branch says the city is seeking further funding for “Bridging the Valley,” a series of projects aimed at separating vehicle and train traffic in Spokane Valley.
Funding would start with the first phase, which includes a Barker Road-grade separation project that would replace an at-grade crossing with an overpass of BNSF Railway Co. tracks.
The city’s website lists the total project cost at approximately $20 million; it’s anticipated that the engineering design will be completed by January 2019, and work would start in 2020.
The city has secured nearly $9.6 million in state and local funding, and is seeking sources for the additional $9.5 million needed to complete the project, Branch says.
Addition funds would go toward the Pines Road underpass-grade separation project, as well as other future elements of the Bridging the Valley initiative, she says.
Meanwhile, in Spokane, Waldref says the city is working on development of proposed legislation that would incentivize the development of vacant and surface parking lots in designated urban areas through a limited tax abatement.
She says the goal of the legislation would be to improve and develop properties with new housing, office, retail, and mixed uses, including structured parking.
“This is an ongoing issue we’ve been looking at, how to incentivize parking companies to build on lots rather than stick with surface parking,” says Waldref. “We’ve been working on developing a bill, but further discussion and development is still needed.”
Waldref says both the cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley are looking at measures to address abandoned and foreclosed homes, which she says attract criminal activity and lead to declining property values.
“This is an issue for many cities across the state, but it’s particularly bad here in Spokane, where we have about 1,000 homes in some state of foreclosure,” says Waldref.
She says the city’s goal is threefold; reducing barriers to lenders and loan services ability to maintain and secure abandoned properties undergoing foreclosure, remove the $2,000 cap on priority liens, and accelerate the foreclosure of abandoned or vacant properties.
“It’s a complex issue but we plan to really fight hard on it this year, because we need to be protecting the quality of our neighborhoods and other’s property rights,” she says.
Waldref says the city of Spokane also is supporting legislation and requesting $500,000 in funding for an evidence-based pilot program for the supervision of property and auto theft crime offenders.
“We’re asking state to do a two-year pilot program, with funding for two staff who would supervise a group of offenders and ensure they don’t reoffend,” she says. “Data have shown this is type of program is effective in preventing recidivism.”
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