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UPDATE | Gov. Gregoire: Taxing district needed to pay for ferry system

Gov. Christine Gregoire has announced a plan to form a regional ferry district that would raise more money for the ferry system through a new government entity that could raise taxes in the nine counties served by Washington State Ferries.

Gregoire floated the idea earlier this week as the solution to the ferry system’s continuing budget woes, but the proposal was immediately met with a bipartisan iceberg.

Local lawmakers and others are cool to the idea, to say the least.

“This just creates another layer of government,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “We already have too much government in this state.”

“Ferries are a part of our highway system,” added Rep. Norma Smith, a South Whidbey resident and 10th District lawmaker.

“All of us want reform,” Smith said. “To announce service cuts and a new layer of government with taxing authority, without recognizing that 69 percent of the operating budget of Washington State Ferries is labor cost, demonstrates a lack of political courage needed to address serious reforms.”

Gregoire said difficult times for the ferry system means “bold action” is needed.

Washington State Ferries is facing a $900 million shortfall over the next decade, and Gregoire said her proposal would help bridge the budget divide for the ferry system that was caused by the loss of motor vehicle excise taxes with the passage of Initiative 695 in 1999.

Gregoire said a new Puget Sound Regional Ferry District — which would include Island, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, Clallam, Jefferson, Kitsap, King and Pierce counties — would take over responsibility for the state ferry system.

“Rather than patch together funding for the ferries for another two years and subject ferry riders and communities to more uncertainty, I believe it is time to take bold action so the system is sustainable, safe and accessible,” Gregoire said in a press statement. “A regional district will give the communities and families who depend on the ferries the stability and control they deserve.”

The governor said she would introduce a bill to form the ferry district, which would then go to the Legislature for approval.

Funding for state ferries would come from taxes levied in the counties served by the ferry system, and also from ferry fares and a state subsidy that would fund a core level of service.

Dave Hoogerwerf, chairman of the Clinton Ferry Advisory Committee, said Friday he had been involved in briefings during the past two days on the proposal, but added that details were lacking.

“This is a radical proposal by the governor, and in my opinion she has driven a stake far out in left field to try to bring the discussion into focus,” he said.

“I think there are some positive things in the proposal, and there are some things that kind of raise my eyebrows,” Hoogerwerf said.

Talk about a change in the governance of Washington State Ferries is welcome, Hoogerwerf said, because ferry officials have to answer to “too many masters.” But it wasn’t fair to put the entire burden of one piece of statewide transportation infrastructure only on the people who use it, he said.

Hoogerwerf said the ongoing mantra of blaming the ferry system’s budget problems on the loss of motor vehicle excise taxes was getting tiresome. Neither side ever made an issue of ferry impacts during the campaign for I-695 more than a decade ago, and blaming the revenue loss on the initiative has become the new talking point in recent years.

“I just don’t buy into that,” he said. “We did the research. Nowhere in any of the pros or cons did it talk about defunding the ferries.”

The governor’s proposal has drawn criticism throughout Puget Sound. King County officials recalled how they started a local ferry district when passenger-only ferry service was threatened, and said the experiment failed and shouldn’t be repeated.

In a joint statement, Metropolitan King County Council members Reagan Dunn and Pete von Reichbauer called the proposal a “Trojan horse.”

“The governor and legislative leaders need to sit down and work through their own problems without dumping them on local governments,” the statement said.

Haugen, a Camano Island Democrat, said the governor’s bill wouldn’t make it out of her committee.

“For those of us in ferry districts, this is not good news. It’s the state saying ‘Take care of your own problem,’” she said.

“It’s not going to get much of a chance,” Haugen said. “It’s not high on my agenda, and it’s not going to be well-received.”

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