Ferry funds muddled by Initiative 745

"With its legislative membership now complete, the new Joint Task Force on Ferries is ready to get to work.But its job is tremendously complicated by the upcoming Initiative 745, said Sen. Betti Sheldon (D-Bremerton), a newly appointed member of the task force.That initiative, expected to earn enough signatures to appear on the November general ballot, would mandate spending 90 percent of state transportation money on highways - whatever that means. The initiative will make an already challenging job much more difficult, Sheldon said in an interview with the Review Monday.We won't know until November whether the initiative will pass, Sheldon said. And it's not clear whether the ferry system would be included as part of the highways on which money is supposed to be spent, or whether they will be excluded.The Joint Task Force was created by the 2000 Washington Legislature in the wake of last fall's Initiative 695, which replaced the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax with a flat $30 fee for vehicle registration. The initiative was overturned on constitutional grounds in King County Superior Court, but the $30 car tab fee was codified by the Legislature.The MVET, which yielded some $750 million per year, had provided roughly 45 percent of the ferry system's annual budget, including virtually all of its capital funds. That left the state with the formidable task of identifying a new long-term funding source for Washington State Ferries, at risk of withering away within three years.As established by the Legislature, the task force was to include four members of the state Senate and four representatives. The membership from each chamber was to be split evenly between the parties, and between representatives of ferry-dependent and non-ferry dependent communities.The task force was empowered to add members as it saw fit. And when the House decided to add the co-chairs of the House Transportation Committee, the Senate also added two additional members, one of whom was Sheldon.I was very thrilled to be added to the task force, because I'm very concerned about the ferry system, she said. And while I'm not on the Senate Transportation Committee, I am on the Ways and Means Committee, which will provide a useful perspective.The task force needs to look at the future of the ferry system in the broadest possible light, Sheldon said.We need to look at what the system needs, how much it will cost, and how we are going to get the money, she said.That already huge job is made more difficult by the fact that Initiative 745 will apparently be on the ballot. Proposed by Mukilteo businessman Tim Eyman, a fraternity wristwatch salesman who also sponsored I-695, the new measure would direct legislators to spend 90 percent of transportation money on highways.The state constitution says that the ferry system is part of the highway system, Sheldon said. So does that mean the money mandated to highways would include ferries? And if the measure doesn't include ferries, would it be constitutional?We'd probably need the courts to answer those questions.Although cautiously optimistic, Sheldon said that coming up with a long-range, permanent plan for the ferry system by January might not be possible. We need to come up with a solid plan to keep the ferries running, she said.If we don't have a permanent plan by January, then we'll need another stop-gap plan.West Sound-area legislators have five of the 16 legislative seats on the task force. Sheldon is joined by fellow Democratic Senator Tim Sheldon (no relation) of Potlach in Mason County; Republican Bob Oke of Port Orchard; and representatives Phil Rockefeller, (D-Bainbridge Island) and Beverly Woods (R-Poulsbo).The first order of business will be the appointment of non-legislators. The statute creating the task force directs inclusion of users, non-users and employees.The real issue here is a long-range plan for transit in the state, Sheldon said. The Legislature has never accepted a long-range plan, and we absolutely have to take on that charge. We can't figure out how to get there unless we have some idea of where we're going, she said. The group has yet to set its first meeting date or location."

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