Democrats' Win May Clear Path For Local Projects -- Lawmakers To Look At Road Funds

The new Democratic majority in the state Senate - and perhaps the state House - combined with the passage of Referendum 49 could mean more money for Snohomish County roads.

That would be a relief to boosters of the Ascent 21 package of ballot measures torpedoed by county voters two weeks ago. The transportation elements, Propositions 1 and 2, sank beneath a 76 percent no vote fueled largely by a perception that local taxes shouldn't pay for state roads.

Now maybe state dollars will instead.

The list of projects loosely attached to the Republican-backed Referendum 49, a $2.4 billion state transportation-spending plan approved Nov. 3, is now moot with the new Democratic majority in the Senate. The money is up for grabs.

"Whatever impressions (the Republicans) left about how 49 was going to be spent are no longer valid. The Democrats are no longer bound by the directions the Republicans were taking," said John Okamoto, the state Department of Transportation's regional administrator.

The state Transportation Commission already is preparing a new list. Gov. Gary Locke will create one, too. But in the end, funding will be determined by the Legislature.

"I was really opposed to 49. It's ironic now that we'll have some significant say in how it's spent," said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, new chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

The original project list, approved by the House but not the

Senate, included about $300 million for Snohomish County highways, but nothing for local roads to help motorists reach those highways.

That could change, said Haugen and state Rep. Ruth Fisher, D-Tacoma, who is expected to co-chair the House Transportation Policy & Budget Committee. With several races still hanging on absentee-ballot counts, it looks like the Democrats and Republicans probably will share leadership of an evenly split House next year.

"We really do believe that local governments have as many transportation needs as the state, and we really need to take a look at their options," Fisher said.

"I think we have treated counties and cities very badly in the past four years. We haven't listened to them at all . . . and that has to change."

Fisher's committee is now headed by Karen Schmidt, R-Bainbridge Island, who could not be reached for comment. Fisher and Schmidt probably would share Transportation Committee leadership if the House is split 49-49 between Democratic and Republican members.

Ascent 21, the $599 million package of five property, real-estate and gas taxes to handle the impacts of rapid growth, included $405 million for state highways, transit centers and local roads. The proposals were created by the county's business and civic leaders, who were concerned that growth problems could scare away potential employers.

Before going to voters, backers of Ascent 21 lobbied the Legislature for new sources of state funding.

The Legislature turned a deaf ear.

County leaders already are conferring with key legislators about the coming session. Last week, Haugen met with Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel and County Councilman Rick Larsen, a Democrat from the Lake Stevens area.

"In spite of what happened to the Ascent 21 vote, transportation needs in Snohomish County have not disappeared," Larsen said. "Transportation is going to be a very important issue for the county this session."

Counties hope the Legislature will either distribute some Referendum 49 dollars to local governments or create another way to address city and county transportation problems, he said.

Fisher and Haugen both said they want to work with Snohomish County officials to brainstorm ways to create funding for needed projects.

"I think we need to take a look at giving them more flexibility with some other funding sources," Haugen said. "Counties don't have the ability to (charge) utility taxes. Why should people who live in the cities pay utility taxes and people living outside the county not?"

In past years, she said, Boeing opposed a county utility tax. That's not an issue now, she said, because Boeing is now part of Everett.

"It's a different era," Haugen said. "To give (local governments) tools to do more is the only way we can go."