Don't dump state programs on local backs | Craig Groshart

They’ve barely finished counting the votes on I-1053, and already Gov. Chris Gregoire is trying to get out from under its restrictions. She now wants to change the operation of the state ferry system.

It’s another case of the state ducking responsibility, and it should be rejected by the Legislature.

I-1053 is the initiative approved by the voters in November that requires that the Legislature approve (by a two-thirds majority) higher tax or fee increases. The idea is that the public can then hold someone accountable if they don’t like the decision.

What Gregoire wants to do is create a Puget Sound Regional Ferry District to operate the ferry system. Doing this would take much of the cost of running the ferries off the state’s back and put it on residents from nine counties. It would be similar to what we have with Sound Transit.

The ferry system has problems. It has lost more than $1.2 billion since 1999, when the voters tossed out the motor vehicle excise tax. And, as costs rise, the state is increasingly on the hook to make up the difference with the system facing a $900 million shortfall over the next 10 years.

Gregoire heralds her move as a “bold action” to make sure the system is sustainable. Since when did passing the buck become a bold move?

Gregoire added that “a regional district will give the communities and families who depend on the ferries the stability and control they deserve.” That, and a hefty tax hike.

The ferry system can be perfectly sustainable if the state does its job and controls the costs of the operation, then makes paying the bills a priority.

However, it’s a tough budget year, hence the move to dump the bills on someone else.

The governor’s plan is to include the residents of King, Clallam, Jefferson, Kitsap, Island, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish and Pierce counties in the regional district. The district’s funds would come from fares, a state subsidy to fund a core level of service, and a regional taxing authority to ensure service levels are consistent with local and regional needs.

The last time we looked, the ferry system was considered part of the state’s highway system. Given that, everyone should help pay for them, just as people in Western Washington pay for state highways on the other side of the mountains.

Dumping state programs onto the backs of local residents isn’t the answer to the state’s financial ills. The governor and Legislature need to prioritize government by spending our tax money first on the most important things.

If ferries are important – and we think they are – then pay for them and cut less important things.

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