As part of the McCleary compromise to fully fund basic education, the state legislature has dipped repeatedly into several accounts outside the general fund. In the 2017-19 state budget, more than $400 million was redirected from the Public Works Trust Fund (Public Works Assistance Account) into the Education Legacy Trust Account to fund K-12 and higher education (page 45). Through the Public Works Board (PWB), that money is intended for a revolving loan program to fund local government infrastructure projects.
However, PWB members say the account raids to pay for McCleary can’t go on indefinitely and will have repercussions as the state looks for money to maintain, expand or repair its infrastructure.
PWB Chair and Lincoln County Commissioner Scott Hutsell told Lens that “we’ve had a lot of legislators who have pushed the easy button, rather than make tough decisions. They aren’t even close to fixing McCleary, because they’re still taking money from what we believe are non-sustainable resources to continue to fund K-12 and higher ed.”
Aside from the state’s latest court-order involving fish barrier removal, there is also $881 million worth of unfunded, shovel-ready local government infrastructure projects. According to the latest report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Washington state’s infrastructure remains mediocre and in need of attention.
“Now we’ve got an infrastructure crisis,” Hutsell said.
Since 1985, the Public Works Board provided $2.8 billion in low-interest loans to pay for almost 2,000 local infrastructure projects, with more than $1 billion invested in three counties alone (King, Snohomish and Pierce). Roughly 75 percent of all those projects and 79 percent of the loans paid for were drinking water and sanitary sewer systems.
According to Hutsell, the account functioned well until the recession. Around 2013, the state began redirecting tax revenue intended for that fund away from it and instead into the state’s education funding account.
All told, around $2 billion has been redirected from that account in the last three biennia, according to Hutsell.
Under Governor Jay Inslee’s proposed 2019-21 budget, the raids would continue to pay for basic and higher education and “likely put the Public Works Assistance Account in final jeopardy,” according to PWB January update. According to the state Office of Program Research 2019 briefing book, the legislature has also signaled that it plans “to continue the policy of transfer funds in the 2019-21 biennium.”
Meanwhile, there is $881 million worth of local infrastructure projects that lack funding to move forward. That’s according to Sync, the state’s infrastructure system improvement team that includes the Public Works Board, Department of Ecology and the Department of Commerce. To help pay for some of those projects, PWB is requesting $17 million from the public works assistance account.
Had the raids into the account not occurred, Hutsell said “we could have got a big chunk of that stuff” funded. That money in the public works trust could have also have been used to cover the $2.8 billion price tag for removing hundreds of fish barriers as part of a court injunction.
“This fish passage barrier thing is going to put McCleary to shame when all is said and done,” Hutsell said.
But even that doesn’t give the whole picture. At a Jan.25 work session of the House Local Government Committee, Lewis County Public Works Director Manager Erik Martin told panel members not to overlook ongoing financial obligations for the current system. “One thing I want to emphasis (is) you have billions, and probably trillions, of dollars of existing infrastructure that is out there that needs to be maintained rehabilitated. That is the piece that sort of gets forgotten. Everybody likes the new sexy road…but those existing roads are so valuable.”
That work will be needed to either improve or maintain Washington’s current grade by ASCE. The society’s report card is based on nine categories such as roads, drinking water, aviation, bridges, transit and schools. Washington’s 11,30 dams scored the highest (B-), while its stormwater infrastructure scored the lowest (D+), with the report noting “much” of it “is in need of repair or replacement.”
It’s a similar situation with Washington’s bridges. Of the 7,410 bridges, 321 were found to be in “poor” condition, with five percent “structurally deficient.” The report also found a maintenance backlog of more than 1,500 bridge repair projects.
ASCE’s Washington Infrastructure Report Card Committee Chair Richard Fernandez offered general recommendations to panel members at the Jan. 25 meeting, noting the state also needed to better balance “the infrastructure needs of urban and rural communities,” adding that there is “definitely a clear divide between western Washington and eastern Washington. Funding rural infrastructure ensures that all Washingtonians have a more equitable access to jobs and strong quality of life.”
As part of his general recommendations, Fernandez said the state should better utilize the PWB’s revolving loan program to finance repair, maintenance and new infrastructure projects.
He also had a recommendation to lawmakers on that: The money in that program “should be used for its intended purpose in modernizing infrastructure, rather than to offset spending elsewhere in the state budget.”