Spokane-area interests are working to inform lawmakers about their priorities as the Legislature sets to convene its 2015 session, which they say will focus heavily on education mandates and transportation funding.
Last year, the Legislature failed to pass a transportation bill, delaying a number of anticipated and ongoing Spokane-area transportation projects, making funding this biennium even more critical, they say.
Also looming large for the upcoming session is the need to come up with a plan to comply with a court order and a voter initiative to reduce class sizes in public schools.
The biggest item in terms of dollars on the city of Spokane’s legislative priorities for the 2015-2017 biennium is the perennial request to fund the North Spokane Corridor.
The city, joined by Greater Spokane Incorporated, is asking for $750 million to complete the corridor from Francis Avenue to Interstate 90, says Spokane Mayor David Condon.
“I’ve taken the position that we can accept nothing less than completion to Interstate 90,” Condon says.
He says phasing the project with its starts and stops is disruptive to the communities it’s supposed to serve.
“If we receive anything less, and phase any more, it will be detrimental to the city,” he says.
He says connectivity to I-90 is critical for the redevelopment of the Hillyard area.
For other infrastructure project funding, the city of Spokane also is seeking to secure a state match of $17 million to augment the city’s $310 million investment in cleaning up the Spokane River. The cleanup effort includes combined sewer overflow projects and planned stormwater diversion projects that would help the city meet federal and state clean water requirements.
In the first of several stormwater-related projects, the city plans to eliminate its largest direct discharge of stormwater into the Spokane River near the T.J. Meenach Bridge in northwest Spokane by diverting it to a ground infiltration system, Condon says.
A Washington state Supreme Court ruling known as the McCleary decision directs the Legislature to meet its obligation under the state constitution to fund basic education fully, says Mark Anderson, Spokane Public Schools associate superintendent for school support services.
The decision sets class sizes for kindergarten through third grade to 17 students per classroom.
In addition, the recently passed Initiative 1351 calls for class-size limits of 25 students for fourth through 12th grades.
Under the measures, class sizes would be even smaller in low-income areas.
Anderson says the Legislature’s first priority for public education should be to “identify and dedicate ample and sustainable funding.”
Until then, he asserts, the state should maintain levy equalization assistance for school districts with lower property tax bases, which includes most Eastern Washington school districts. In recent years, levy equalization has brought in more than $10 million annually to Spokane Public Schools.
To accommodate smaller class sizes, the Legislature not only should fund staffing increases, but it also should fund additional classroom construction for schools that already are operating at capacity, Anderson asserts.
“If we’re going to lower class sizes, we need more classrooms,” he says. “We shouldn’t put all the burden on local taxpayers. The state should pick up some of that.”
Spokane Public Schools also will seek $8.2 million in capital funding for the second phase of the modernization project at its NewTech Skill Center, where a 38,000-square-foot addition is being constructed on the south side of the original 70,000-square-foot facility.
Anderson says the Legislature has been providing full funding for skill-center projects around the state.
Similarly, the Central Valley School District is seeking $1.1 million to finish the 11,000-square-foot Spokane Valley Tech project, which also serves the East Valley, West Valley, and Freeman school districts.
Greater Spokane Incorporated is joining the city in calling for the Legislature to fund requests by Washington State University to develop its own fully accredited medical school in Spokane and by the University of Washington to expand the Spokane unit of its WWAMI program, which educates medical students from five Western states.
WSU is seeking $2.5 million for medical school startup funds and UW is seeking $8 million to expand the WWAMI program to train 80 students per year by 2017.
Both programs are needed here and likely would complement each other, says Steve Stevens, president and CEO of GSI, which acts as a regional chamber of commerce and economic development agency.
“We’re not interested in choosing one university over the other,” Stevens says. “There’s a place for both. The state is underserved in producing doctors, especially in Eastern Washington.”
Also on the education front, Eastern Washington University is requesting funds to design and build a planned $72.4 million science building.
“Over the next 10 years, EWU expects its student population to grow by 20 percent,” Stevens says, adding that a growing share of those new students are expected to seek health-related degrees.
A new science building will be needed to meet demand for labs, he says. “Lower-division courses are running at or beyond the available space.”
In addition to the North Spokane Corridor project funding, GSI and local governments will lobby the Legislature to include several other Spokane-area projects in a statewide transportation package.
Spokane Valley is seeking state funding for a $29.2 million project that would separate the BNSF Railway Co. grade at Barker Road, including removing an at-grade crossing, says Spokane Valley Mayor Dean Grafos.
The ongoing rise in both train and vehicle traffic there is increasing congestion on the main arterial, compounding safety concerns, he says.
Spokane Valley has secured about $8.7 million for the project, but shouldn’t have to fund the project alone, he asserts.
Spokane Valley also is seeking $1 million for the next phase of the Appleway Trail project. The funding would assist in constructing the trail on a 5.5-mile section of the former railroad right of way between Sullivan and Evergreen roads.
“It’s a good economic development tool,” Grafos says of the trail, which would provide a nonmotorized travel route that parallels Spokane Valley’s main east-west arterial.
GSI’s transportation-related priorities also include a proposed $25 million I-90 improvement project from Barker Road, in Spokane Valley, to Harvard Road, in Liberty Lake. The project also would improve the interchanges and relieve height restrictions at overpasses.
GSI also supports an $18 million funding request for I-90 improvements to the state Route 902 interchange near Medical Lake.
The city of Spokane also is requesting $8.8 million to construct a bicycle-pedestrian bridge in the U-District that would cross the railroad tracks and likely would increase the viability of business and residential development south of the U-District.
GSI will oppose efforts to increase or expand business and occupation taxes.
“We already know that sometimes Washington doesn’t rate very well,” Stevens says.
GSI also will call for workers’ compensation reform.
“We are in one of the worst states as far as workers’ comp,” Stevens says. “One simple thing is to try to reduce the amount of time it takes to resolve a claim.”
The Legislature also needs to address Washington’s business climate to keep it competitive with other states, he asserts.
“Washington is under assault from neighboring states trying to take our business,” Stevens says.
Condon says the city of Spokane again will seek legislation to designate its waste-to-energy plant as a renewable energy source. Such a designation would allow the city to sell renewable energy credits, potentially generating millions of dollars in revenue.
On another policy issue, Condon says the city would join the Association of Washington Cities in supporting legislation that would add housing and transportation costs and median income to factors considered in binding labor arbitration.
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