OLYMPIA -- With jobless rates hovering near 9 percent in the Evergreen State, a few Washington lawmakers are zeroing in on a way to fire up the regional economy.
Their idea is a new way to pay for government construction projects. Sen. Derek Kilmer said the concept is simple: Issue revenue bonds, just like the state does now to pay for state highway and bridge projects with gas taxes.
But this construction package would rely on the state's toxics taxes, public works trust funds and perhaps other streams of money that roll into the state's capital budget.
"What we want to look at is a responsible approach that has the state making investments that make sense,'' the Gig Harbor Democrat said.
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The bonus: Unlike past jobs plans, this one would avoid adding debt payments to the state's general fund, which already needs a $2 billion fix. It also could avoid a trip to the ballot, allowing work to get under way in the next construction season.
Kilmer, the capital-budget leader in the Senate, said the goal is to reduce joblessness in the economically gutted building-trades sector.
Also working on the package is House Capital Budget Committee chairman Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish -- the architect of previous unsuccessful bond packages targeted at job creation.
So far, GOP leaders have not signed on, nor has Gov. Chris Gregoire. But they are not fighting it.
"There's a skeleton proposal right now," said Republican Sen. Linda Parlette of Wenatchee, who worked with Kilmer earlier this year to set up a debt commission to study problems with the state's financial balance sheets.
Debt vs. jobs
Parlette said she remains worried by the state's debt level, but at the same time wants to help the economy and get a good deal on state construction projects. As she puts it: "How do you have money to spend when it goes further in times of recession, and spend less when times are flush?''
Contractors and labor groups have formed a coalition to support the concept for a simple reason: They are screaming for jobs.
"The rest of the economy is in a recession. Construction is in a depression," said Rick Slunaker of Associated General Contractors of Washington. "Contractors have laid off 35 per- cent of their work force in recent years. ... In some crafts and trades, unemployment is above 50 percent.''
Jeff Johnson, leader of the Washington State Labor Council, said the jobless rate "ranges from 20 percent to 60 percent, depending on the craft and the area of the state."
The two groups have been lobbying jointly in meetings with legislative leaders and Gov. Chris Gregoire. The governor has asked her staffers to look into the idea further, a spokeswoman said Friday.
Mantra: jobs, jobs, jobs
The Labor Council and AGC hope for a package worth $2 billion that might add 30,000 jobs -- a level Dunshee thinks could lower the jobless rate by a full percentage point. Dunshee and Slunaker say a big program could generate about $100 million in taxes during the next three years.
But depending on the specifics, cri-tics may surface. Environmentalists fear that toxics taxes could be diverted from stormwater and environmental cleanups to unrelated projects.
Past legislatures have raided the toxics accounts to plug gaps in the operating budget, and Gregoire just last month proposed another transfer that the Nature Conservancy and Washington Environmental Council strongly oppose.
But Mo McBroom of the Environmental Council said Kilmer and Dunshee could make it work for everyone if they keep the environmental dollars for environmental projects.
"If this is done right, it's not a raid," McBroom said. "It's a smart investment up front in environmental projects that need to be done. ..."
Sorting out finance puzzle
How that gets settled is the challenge. So is the mix of projects, which Dunshee and Kilmer said they have not yet drawn up.
The kinds of projects could be anything from public housing and community college campus projects to stormwater, sewer and even culvert projects to help salmon runs.
Kilmer said he wants to see projects that:
* add to a larger economic development growth.
* take advantage of today's lower costs for labor, materials and interest, as well as local or federal dollars that otherwise would sit idle.
* cut costs or help to generate state revenue.
* Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688; email@example.com