Ready to tunnel into real solutions in 2015?

There are possibilities for progress in Washington state and the Puget Sound area. But don't count on anything.
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Inside the tunnel

There are possibilities for progress in Washington state and the Puget Sound area. But don't count on anything.

Looking into my crystal ball — and yes, I have one, an old green Japanese fishing float — I foresee that the year 2015 promises to be the year of either Big Headaches or Big Solutions.

For one thing, we’ll be catching up with many cans we’ve been kicking down the road. It is the year that the complex deal on Seattle’s $15-an-hour minimum wage begins to be phased in. It is the year the state Legislature has pledged, once again, to face its multibillion-dollar underfunding of education, this time with a state Supreme Court contempt decision hanging over its head. It is also the year when officials hope Big Bertha will get moving again.

In all three cases, the stakes are huge.

The minimum wage hike, the first of its kind in the country, is still opposed by many in the business community; its implementation is complicated and in part relies on the creation of the new city Office of Labor Standards to ensure everyone is complying with new employer wage rules. At the same time, economic pressures are only increasing for the people the wage is designed to help: Rents are high, and higher utility rates are in the offing. Politically, Mayor Ed Murray must show that he’s delivering on this signature accomplishment of his first year in office.

At the state level, the Legislature has pledged to figure out a way to finance its own plan to boost education funding by $3 billion for the next biennium (2017–19). The state lawmakers remain deeply divided on whether to raise taxes or cut spending to meet the goals, and the state is already looking at massive budget cuts even without the McCleary v. Washington–mandated spending boost. Will lawmakers slash non-education spending to fulfill the court order, or find new revenues? If they fail, what kinds of penalties will the Supreme Court impose, and will that set off a constitutional crisis between the legislative and judicial branches of government?

The deep-bore tunnelers under downtown had a dreadful 2014 when their machine broke down at the starting gate. They are now in the middle of repairing Bertha, while insisting she can finish the job. But a 20-month delay and no assurance that even a repaired Bertha will work as needed add doubts about the timing of many projects that rely on its success (replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, making over the waterfront). Mayor Murray has ordered some delays in waterfront planning until it’s certain Bertha will work. In the meantime, the boondoggle has damaged the credibility of the Washington Department of Transportation at a time when a state transportation plan has struggled for approval in Olympia. Getting Bertha moving again is key — but not yet a sure thing.

Those are some big cans to reckon with, but there’s more.

Seattle is facing another major political transformation. The voter-approved initiative for a city council system based mostly on districts begins to kick in this year. Every city council seat will be up for election, and seven of nine seats will be elected by district. Incumbents might have to run for re-election in parts of the city they’ve ignored. Grassroots candidates might find new life against big-money downtown interests. Districts should shuffle the deck, so we can expect some new faces at City Hall.

Another issue likely to stir concern — and revive old memories—is the subject of disaster. If 2014 was the sobering year of Oso, 2015 is the year we will be “celebrating” the 50th anniversary of the Big Quake of 1965 that shook the city. The Pacific Science Center will help spur thoughts of disaster with an exhibit of relics from Pompeii (it opens in February). We’ll likely never look at Mount Rainier the same way again. Another disaster that we’ll be hearing more about — albeit a slow-moving one — is the impact of climate change. Gov. Jay Inslee will propose new laws in 2015 to curb the state’s carbon emissions. Will the Legislature move on that? Don’t hold your breath.

The year of Big Headaches or Big Solutions, which will it be? My fishing float is murky on the answer.

This column originally appeared in the December issue of Seattle Magazine.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.