This legislative session lawmakers avoided raiding the Public Works Assistance Account, which they have done repeatedly over the past decade—to the tune of more than $2 billion. While key lawmakers in both chambers have expressed intent to further restore the account, which funds a revolving low-interest loan program for cities and counties, the Public Works Board (PWB) wants to prevent future raids.
Created in 1985, the Public Works Assistance Account has primarily funded drinking water and wastewater projects but can also fund other projects such as the removal of local fish barriers. However, the legislature over the years has not only taken money from the account but has also diverted tax revenue intended for it to plug holes in the operating budget.
Senate Ways and Means Chair Christine Rolfes (D-23) told the PWB at its June 4 meeting that “the sweeps were done to balance the difficult budget during the recession, but they were also done because the legislature didn’t want to raise taxes or make cuts to other things in order to fund the McCleary obligations. So, what you’ve seen throughout the last decade or so is the legislature prioritizing other things rather than infrastructure. We finally, I think, have a core group of legislators that sees the importance of infrastructure funding to everything.”
Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5) told PWB that “I don’t think we can put enough importance on the major huge change that has happened in the budgeting process this session. We finally got to the finish line. I actually think what happened this session is going to be a long-term, permanent change for the better.”
Although the 2021-23 biennial budget allocates $129 million to the PWB to fund local infrastructure projects, that budget also states that the legislature “may appropriate” funds from the account in the future.
“I hope we don’t have to do that again,” Sen. Judy Warnick (R-13) said at the June 4 meeting.
Washington Association of Sewer and Water Districts (WASWD) lobbyist Scott Hazlegrove said at the June 4 meeting that “it is going to be critical that we make the case for the return of the revenue streams that had been diverted for other budget needs.”
Association of Washington Cities Government Relations Director Candice Bock told PWB said at the meeting that “it doesn’t mean we can take a break because we had a good 2021. We really need to use this next year to continue that messaging about the importance of infrastructure…and how the Public Works Assistance Account plays that critical role in infrastructure funding.”
Although the budget committee chairs speaking at the meeting signaled their intent to restore the account, they also noted that changes can be made to better protect those monies.
“It was an easy place to raid when things got tough,” Rolfes said. “You now have a few years, I believe, to build up the profile of what you do so that it’s not so easy the next time around, so it’s not an easy place to find cash when cash is needed.”
PWB member Diane Pottinger also suggested legislation guarding the account from raids, an idea that both Rolfes and Mullet voiced support for.
“These next few years would be a great window to get policy like that to the finish line,” Mullet said.
Bock noted that “it is the ideal, the dream, (but) I don’t know how you protect it without a constitutional amendment. That’s a huge lift. I think we should focus on getting the money back first.”
WASWD Executive Director Judy Gladstone said PWB should “really capitalize on this renewed interest on core infrastructure” and “bring more education around what that core infrastructure means to our communities.”