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Picking Peter’s pocket to pay Paul: Lazy McCleary ‘fix’ leaves critical infrastructure projects out in the cold

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard,
To give the poor dog a bone;
But when she got there
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.

-“Old Mother Hubbard,” Sarah Catherine Martin

In the largest sense, Washington state’s fiscal cupboards are far from bare. On one side, lawmakers are dancing around the question of what to do with a revenue surplus and extreme visions of replenishing the rainy-day fund; on the other, they are pondering increasing spending and adding new layers of revenue and cost to consumers. But that doesn’t mean that everyone’s cupboards are stocked.

We’d hardly recognize the operation in Olympia if budget makers weren’t diving into the pantry of some established fund or account, sometimes for legitimate reasons, but often as a way of balking at opportunities to solve fiscal puzzles. Siphoning a fund dry is a way out of engineering difficult compromises to stabilize revenue, or better yet to enact reforms that might minimize the scale and severity of the burden on taxpayers and businesses. The process leaves starving a large list of projects for which funding should have already been earmarked. Notably, during the last big legislative session there was one particularly voracious appetite roaming the ledgers, looking to feed: McCleary.

Unsurprising then, that in the rush to lock one political monster away – the big shove to get a billion-plus dollar McCleary beast into a hastily constructed fiscal cage – lawmakers desperately cut the deadbolt on another cache and dug their hands into public money that was destined for critical infrastructure projects. The much-ballyhooed McCleary fix, despite punching property owners in Washington’s more affluent counties firmly in the pocketbook, couldn’t make ends meet without leeching a significant amount – more than $400 million – from the Public Works Trust Fund.

Current plans are for the state to continue moving money from the Public Works Trust Fund to pay for public education. Why is this bad? For starters, it goes against an axiom many have heard endlessly repeated: don’t rob Peter to pay Paul.

We utter that cautionary proverb often – so often perhaps, that full understanding of the adage is lost. The phrase has an unclear etymology, but versions of the idea are at least as old as the Middle Ages. One iteration reads: “To robbe Petyr & geve it Poule, it were non almesse but gret synne.” Roughly translated, considering the words ‘non almesse’ (not to be counted) is key; not only is it a moral synne (sin) to rob Peter, but when we do, the exchange quite literally zeroes out. The good that Paul might do with his newfound riches is offset by the things Peter cannot now do because of his lack.

In the case of our state budget, Peter’s plan for the Public Works Trust Fund constitutes too much good for lawmakers to justify giving the money to public education.

Even if we the powers that be feel confident ignoring time-tempered wisdom, there are currently almost $900 million worth of local infrastructure projects that are unfunded but shovel-ready – projects that typically get funding from Peter’s raided account. And while much attention has been given to shiny new objects such as the recently opened Highway 99 Tunnel, or the ultra-contentious Columbia River Crossing, thousands of these smaller but essential pieces of existing infrastructure are in desperate need of attention.

Bridges, roads, and culverts are in need of retrofit or repair. Building out local stormwater infrastructure is one weak link in a chain of salmon recovery efforts, and development across the region to keep pace with population growth has only aggravated that need. Removing barriers to fish passage is another must-do item, and the recent Supreme Court ruling on the issue put county and local governments on notice to address the unmet burdens to clear such barriers. That work would ordinarily be funded at least partially through the Public Works Trust Fund.

If the good of doing those projects is still not persuasive for the case of discontinuing the raids, perhaps an appeal to human nature would be. We humans are susceptible to the trap of ‘easy-bad’ choices, a decisional moment when moral hazards have increasingly become obscured by the successive making of bad decisions.  Lawmakers should slay the easy-bad demon creeping through state budgeting, or risk being dragged down by it when the problem is crashing revenues, not surging surpluses.

Bryan Myrick is a native Washingtonian who has written about state, local and national politics since 2008, and has worked as a consultant on a number of high-profile ballot measure and candidate campaigns. He graduated from the University of Washington with majors in Political Science and Communications.

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