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Senate ‘willing to walk away’ from state bond projects

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on April 15, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
April 15, 2011 12:50 pm

Construction projects paid for with state borrowing are popular with everyone, but that doesn’t keep them from becoming political footballs.

Senators who released a bipartisan construction budget earlier this week are threatening to scrap the bonds that it contains if the House doesn’t pass a constitutional amendment they favor.

House Republicans have also been using the bonds as a bargaining chip, as The Olympian’s Brad Shannon reported. They’re threatening to vote against them if Democrats don’t approve the Senate’s workers’ compensation bill.

Even a minority of lawmakers can gain leverage by holding up bonds because borrowing requires a 60 percent supermajority.

“It’s the one thing they have control over,” House Capital Budget Committee Chairman Hans Dunshee said, “so they’re thinking about all the things you can get for it at this point.”

But a move today by Dunshee aims to make it harder for lawmakers to vote against the debt. He merged the bond bill that authorizes borrowing money with the part of the capital budget that directs how that money will be spent. So anyone voting no could be accused of opposing all sorts of projects in their home districts.

Senators are undaunted. “They’re just playing games,” Republican Sen. Linda Evans Parlette of Wenatchee said. And Senate GOP Leader Mike Hewitt said if the debt issue isn’t addressed, Republicans are willing to oppose the bond projects and borrow no money: “We’re willing to walk away from everything.”

The authors of the capital budget, Parlette and Democrat Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor, say they are preparing a cash-only alternative capital budget that would borrow no money but still fund K-12 construction and some other projects.

That’s leverage in Kilmer and Parlette’s push to pass a constitutional amendment to rein in state debt. The bill passed the Senate unanimously and is waiting for action by Dunshee’s committee.

It would lower the state’s capacity for debt while ratcheting it back up in lean economic years when the construction industry is suffering and could use the work. That restraint would reduce the money the state spends paying interest on its debt, providing more money for operating expenses — everything from schools to health care.

Dunshee says he hasn’t refused to pass the constitutional change and thinks it’s a good idea to smooth out the roller coaster of expanding debt in good times and shrinking it in bad times. But he also said time is needed to weigh a proposal that he said would reduce projects by as much as a third over the next few years.

His committee is holding a hearing Monday, the Snohomish Democrat said. “It’s a constitutional amendment. That’s pretty significant. I think we ought to spend some time on it.”

Dunshee didn’t seem too worried about the hostage situations that the bonds find themselves in. It has happened before and the Legislature always passes a capital budget, he said.

“The hostage always lives,” he said.

As for the merged bond proposal, Dunshee’s committee approved the revised bill today 8-2. Republicans split, with some like Rep. Hans Zeiger of Puyallup (Yes, there are two members of the committee named Hans) voting yes and others concerned about a lack of transparency in a vote before 9 a.m. on a 176-page bill not seen until late last night.

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