Last spring, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire signed legislation that took the first small step toward restoring Puget Sound's biological health by 2020, establishing a permanent Puget Sound Partnership and appropriating $238 million — not all of it new money — over the current budget biennium to start the job. That $238 million may sound like a nice chunk of change but amounts to only 3 percent of the $8 billion total price tag originally projected. If the actual cost of restoring Puget Sound is closer to $20 billion, as some have suggested, then the appropriation is a small drop in a very large bucket.
Gregoire hasn't backed away from her commitment to the Sound — indeed, she has reaffirmed it — but that is less reassuring than perhaps it should be.
For one thing, if she loses to Republican Dino Rossi in November, all bets are presumably off. For another, we have no lack of big-ticket items on our horizon, and little prospect of good times ahead.
Political leaders and journalists talk about the billions we will have to pay — whether it's through taxes or tolls or some other means — to either replace or repair the Highway 520 bridge and the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Add to the list the road projects that weren't funded when Proposition 1 went down in flames, the maintenance projects that were never included in Proposition 1, our fleet of rusting ferries, and maybe, dare we say it, funding to keep the gladiatorial spectacles rolling in a new Tim Eyman's Initiative 960 has made legislators skittish about proposing revenue increases, and some economic soothsayers have examined the entrails and seen recession.
Whether or not "we're going into a recession at all is uncertain," Geoff Colvin writes in Fortune. "Merrill Lynch's chief economist says we're already in one; Goldman Sachs's chief economist says we'll be in one by next quarter; Lehman Brothers' chief economist still doesn't expect one. Let's not worry about what to call it: The reality is that we're in a deep economic slowdown that will affect millions of people." Clearly, Bush's tax-rebate proposal and the Fed's big rate cut are both designed to keep the R from the door, but any way you slice it, short-term economic prospects look bleak.
In last month's State of the State address, Gregoire urged the Legislature to bank most of the projected budget surplus against a recession. This does not seem a propitious time to think about raising a very large pile of new cash. Of course, by the time the Partnership is ready to pass the hat, the economy may have turned around. But the long list of competing capital expenditures won't go anywhere.
Way back in the spring of 2007, when enthusiasm for saving the Sound ran high and the housing bubble hadn't yet burst, people might have supported an $8 billion or even a $20 billion financing plan. What are the chances that they'll support it a year or two hence? Should we have caught the wave in 2007? Has it passed us by?
At a recent City Club luncheon discussion of Puget Sound, several panelists, including Puget Sound Partnership executive director David Dicks, argued that we haven't missed that chance at all, that we're laying the necessary groundwork for public financing.
Panelist John Lombard, author of Saving Puget Sound, disagreed. He argued that if you're talking about traditional tax proposals, we have indeed missed our chance. This is no environment in which to sell people on $8 billion or so of new taxes. He thinks we should look at something non-traditional, such as a $1 million tax on each gallon of fresh water taken from the natural system. That would raise more than enough money and also raise people's consciousness — like forcing drivers to pay tolls, rather than funding roads or bridges through general taxation.
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