City preps agendas for state, federal lawmakers

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State lawmakers will be facing a budget year when they begin to gather in January for what will be at least a 105-day session. Mixed into those discussions are efforts by city and local governments, which have their own wish lists for lawmakers.

Tacoma is no exception.

The City Council will formalize its state and federal legislative agendas next week, but the draft rosters of new laws, legal changes and authorizations involve a host of issues facing the City of Destiny.

One effort the city supports doesn’t directly affect the city at all. It’s supporting the Tacoma School District’s efforts to tweak the state’s formula on state funding of public education that came from the “McCleary Decision” by the state’s Supreme Court that mandated lawmakers fully fund public education in the state. That solution capped the amount that districts could collect from voter-approved levies, which translates into a funding gap of more than $20 million in Tacoma schools this year and more next year.

The city backs the district’s hope that the state legislature changes the funding formula that funneled more money to public schools over all but led to less funding for urban districts like Tacoma. The new formula, for example, allows some school districts in wealthier communities to collect up to $2,500 per student in voter-approved levies. Less affluent districts like Tacoma, however, can collect only $1,500 per student – even if voters had already approved higher levy amounts. Tacomans did just that earlier this year.

Voters approved $72 million in levy funding in February, for example, but the new state formula only allows the district to collect $40 million of that. The difference of $32 million fueled the shortfall the district covered with layoffs but could bleed budget troubles into future years if the state doesn’t change the rules. Without a legislative change to allow higher amounts, Tacoma could face a shortfall of $38 million next school year.

“They aren’t even allowed to collect the amount voters approved under the ‘McCleary fix,’” Tacoma’s Government Affairs Manager Randy Lewis said.

The city also hopes lawmakers find funding and assistance for homelessness programs, specifically dollars for the Beacon Center’s homeless youth operations and funding for Washington State Department of Transportation to clean up and monitor homelessness encampments that routinely spring up on state property within the city.

“Portions of state highways are used for encampments and also become blighted through discarded refuse,” the city’s legislative agenda points out. “Tagging and other graffiti is also a problem on state bridges and other transportation infrastructure. The city seeks legislation or budget authorization providing direction and increased funding for the Department of Transportation to work with local governments in rapid responses to address these issues.”

This is an issue faced by many cities around the state since local governments have no authority over state property but face the public health and safety troubles unkempt state lands create.

“Whatever the solution in, there needs to be something done to address this statewide,” Lewis said.

Dovetailing on that effort is an agenda item for the state to help provide medium- and long-term housing solutions for people at risk of, or already experiencing, homelessness. Options could involve funding for local housing trust funds, modifications of real estate excise taxes, or to enhance construction of affordable housing in other ways.

“Many local government agencies are dealing with the same issues concerning homelessness as Tacoma,” the city’s staff report stated. “The city will look for ways to maximize legislative success by working collaboratively with these agencies wherever practicable.”

Another local issue with statewide reach is funding repairs to aging infrastructure projects that local governments struggle to address. The Puyallup River Bridge between Tacoma and Fife, for example, carried more than 30,000 cars per day before it closed. The city cobbled together funding to replace two sections of the 90-year-old bridge, but the remaining six segments will require more than $100 million and could include periods when it would be open only to then close again as construction on future segments receive replacement funding unless full funding is found sooner rather than later. A solution could involve tolling for big-ticket items.

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