This is the time of year when the fate of many programs are in the crosshairs as state lawmakers attempt to put together their proposed budgets for the next biennium.
The Legislature can’t stop its work until a balanced budget is passed. Politics and party lines often get in the way of sound financial planning. And the leadership is grappling with a way to comply with the McCleary decision handed down by Washington’s Supreme Court requiring the state to fulfill its constitutional obligation to fully-fund basic education.
That makes every dollar that’s been saved or projected income yet to come a potential target to be pulled back into the state’s general fund to pay for education. Our lawmakers have raided other accounts – regardless of how well the programs work or the clear need for them -- just to try to balance the budget in prior years, and the McCleary decision compounds that.
One such perennial victim in recent years is the state Public Works Trust Fund. The fund was established 30 years ago as revolving loan fund for communities to use to restore and upgrade their infrastructure. At the time the state agreed to increase taxes on utilities, solid waste, storm water, and real estate excise taxes to create and perpetuate the fund to be used as a revolving infrastructure loan for local jurisdictions.
The program has been a success, loaning $2.8 billion over the years to cities and towns of all sizes across the state for more than 2,000 projects involving sewers, roads and other critical infrastructure needs. Locally, the funds have been used for widely.
According to state records, since its inception in 1985 the fund has provided more than $103 million in loans to Benton County and nearly $16 million to Franklin County. Keep in mind the support is passed along in the form of a loan and there has not been a single default since the funds inception.
The problems for the trust fund began more than a decade ago mostly because of its success. By 2005 the fund had more than $2 billion and lawmakers started using it as at ATM, transferring money out of it for other uses. Over the past 12 years the state has diverted more than $2.2 billion from the fund, leaving what was supposed to be a self-perpetuating fund with less than $700 million. The state has redirected taxes and loan repayments from the fund to other areas.
Cities have been able to receive loans at a very low interest rate from the fund. If it disappears, they will be forced to find more traditional means of funding at higher costs and rates or defer needed infrastructure work altogether. Neither is a good option for our communities.
Washington’s Public Works Trust Fund was revolutionary and has been modeled across the nation. But now our lawmakers are threatening further threatening its future by the constant use of its funding for other matters.
Legislation has been proposed on either side, with some effort made in the House to preserve the fund.
Our state needs to find ways to fix its budget woes without raiding successful and needed programs like the Public Works Trust Fund.