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Published on Friday, July 12, 2013

Long and grueling session(s)

Same question remains that we asked at the end of 2012: Has the state-city partnership been altered permanently?

The answer to that question is – maybe. More on that later.

In a session in which ultimately both revenues and expectations were “up,” it took 48 more working days than the 105 allotted to come to agreement on a $33.5 billion operating budget. That’s $2.2 billion more than last biennium’s $31.3 billion budget.

How did they do it? As noted in this Tacoma News Tribune editorial, they did it “with a help of an improved revenue forecast, a raid on construction money and happy assumptions about unspecified government savings.” Additionally they kept a growing amount of liquor revenue for their own priorities.

The Legislature also adopted a $3.6 billion capital budget full of projects important to many cities and take-homes for legislators. Absent from the list of achievements was any new revenue for state or local transportation projects.

Most of the session (and the two special sessions following it) was devoted to figuring out how and where to make cuts while making sure there was close to $1 billion more for K-12 education – a down payment on fulfilling a Washington State Supreme Court ruling requiring more state investment over the next several biennia. AWC supports sufficient education funding, but not at the expense of critical support for cities.

As was the case before the series of legislative sessions at the end of 2011 and during 2012, it became clear that cities would be vulnerable to reductions in state shared revenues as legislators and a new Governor started the 2013 session with a projected shortfall to maintain current programs, let alone add funding for K-12 education. It was also apparent that efforts to attain substantial reductions in city expenditures that are mandated or influenced by state law or regulations would be difficult.

The good news for all 281 cities is that cuts to all state shared revenues, except liquor taxes, were spared. Allocated to all cities since 1933, these liquor funds help pay for local public safety. In the end, legislators chose again to cut, but this time, not fully eliminate shared liquor taxes as they had last year. They also chose not to consider restoring growth in profits that were capped last year. (See the State Budget section for more details.)

Faced with continued city budget woes and expected cuts in state shared revenues, AWC’s agenda focused on three priority issue areas: ensuring fiscal sustainability and flexibility; fostering investment in infrastructure and economic development; and enhancing the ability of cities to provide services to homes and businesses within their community. How’d we do?

  • The state continued to support cities with small but helpful appropriations for things like criminal justice services and mitigating the impacts of low sales tax base in small communities and effects of sales tax streamlining.
  • As noted earlier, the state didn’t maintain historical levels of liquor revenue sharing – even at a time when sales are up.
  • Infrastructure investments in roads, bridges, and water and sewer systems took a beating.
    • Legislators chose not to adopt any new revenue streams to address traffic congestion or crumbling transportation infrastructure. This in spite of knowing that problems exist in many parts of the state, jeopardizing state and local economic vitality.
    • The much used and well-respected Public Works Trust Fund was raided and no new projects (or jobs related to constructing them) will be funded in the 2013-15 biennium.
  • Cities hoping for help to better manage personnel costs were neither helped nor hurt.
  • Those hoping for relief from abusive public records requestors didn’t get relief, and hope for a breakthrough now rests on a small appropriation to fund a mediation process to see if both sides of the issue can find common ground for a solution to costly and abusive requests.
  • Serious help to meet mandates for cities required to manage stormwater came in the form of clearer direction from legislators and a $100 million grant program to help address stormwater challenges.
  • We were successful in preventing the Legislature from adopting any new unfunded mandates and actually got some help in narrowing the mandate to convert all local government equipment to operate on alternative fuels.

As the session came to a close, state lawmakers were most concerned about balancing their own budget, retaining programs and services they cared most about, and leaving themselves (or their successors) with a more sustainable fiscal future. This is not a new phenomenon. What is new and disturbing is the continuing pattern of where they go to find money for things they want when they can’t agree to cost savings or new revenue. They look instead to raid cash from funds that support infrastructure in cities and adjust distribution of liquor revenues to keep more for the state.

This pattern signals what cities will face in the coming years. AWC will continue to focus attention on city cost drivers and the need to provide workable options to raise and keep revenue locally to meet community needs. The problem remains that neither are easy to achieve and both face strong opposition. An improving economy can and does help some cities, but won’t alone solve the problem of how to maintain strong cities, where two-thirds of our state’s citizens live and most of the state’s economic activity occurs.

What’s next?

AWC President Craig George has asked cities across the state to look at what issues remain unresolved on our 2013 legislative agenda and is seeking additional ideas to be vetted during our 2014 agenda development process. Our Legislative Committee is preparing to revisit remaining issues and consider any new suggestions.

As this agenda unfolds and is finalized in the late fall, we hope to share ideas with cities about how you can help your legislators better understand the impacts of actions they’re taking, or not, and how they affect your community.

A final word of thanks to the many city officials who communicated with us, your Legislators and the Governor during these grueling months as budget challenges were faced at home and here in Olympia. Your help made a difference. If you wish to send a thank you note to any legislators, you can find their contact information here. Don’t stop now. Please keep talking with your local legislators throughout the interim and let them know how the legislature’s actions have impacted your city.

This is the final Legislative Bulletin for the 2013 session. We will produce the Legislative Bulletin monthly during the interim, starting in August, and resume the weekly production schedule in January 2014. For information on how to use this final edition, click here.