Month: January 1999

For the Fish

Last year a huge battle was waged between Sen. Slade Gorton and environmental groups over breaching dams on the Elwha, Columbia, and Snake rivers to restore salmon runs. The argument for breaching the dams is obvious: salmon runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers are at dangerously low levels–many on the verge of being listed as endangered species. Overfishing and the effects of pollution and radiation in the Columbia River are major contributors, but so are the dams, which raise water temperatures, expose fish to predators, slow their migration to the sea, and slice them up as they go through the turbines. Fish ladders and barging salmon around the dams have done zero to boost survival rates in the fish population. Environmentalists have long argued that dismantling some or all of the dams is necessary, and have formed a coalition with consumer groups, electric utilities, and some energy-efficient businesses to battle Slade Gorton’s stalling tactics in the Senate.

The opponents consist of two main groups. The first and most sympathetic are farmers in Eastern Oregon who are dependent both on water from the reservoirs created by these dams and who utilize barge traffic to transport their crops to market. An estimated 35,000 acres of irrigated farmland would be lost once the dams are breached because of lower water levels. But it’s important to remember that dam construction is the only thing that had made farming possible in the arid regions of eastern Oregon and Washington; in the meantime, thousands of acres of fertile land in western Washington and Oregon is being paved over every year.

The second and more influential group of opponents are a few aluminum companies that rely on the cheap power produced by these dams. According to a recent federal study, these companies could see an estimated $600,000 per month jump in their utility bills once the dams are gone. It sounds bad, but nowhere else in the U.S. would these companies find power that’s as cheap as it is here in Washington and Oregon.

The same federal study estimated that breaching the Snake River dams would have a minimal impact on residential electricity rates. Seattle households would see an increase of less than $1 per month on their electric bills, because local utilities don’t buy much hydroelectric power. In small rural towns that do buy most of their power from hydroelectric sources, the increase will be higher: about 15%, or a boost of about $8 per month for an average utility bill of $55. Of course, Congress could do the decent thing and decide to spread the cost around to all Northwest ratepayers, giving everyone a tiny hike of about $2 per month–well within what most folks are willing to pay to save salmon runs. But that proposal hasn’t even been discussed. Instead, Slade Gorton–working, as usual, on the behalf of his most powerful constituents–has done his best to block the removal of any dams on Pacific Northwest rivers.

Nickels and Dimes

In the world of budget figures and government funding, $5 billion is not a lot, but how it’s spent can say a lot about the prerogatives of the people who make economic decisions in our society.

For example, under President Clinton’s new expanded military spending plan, the Bangor submarine base on Bainbridge Island will receive $5 billion to upgrade four submarines with new Trident II nuclear missiles. It will cost an estimated $1 billion to renovate each sub. The main reason given for the upgrade is that the new missiles have a range of 6,000 miles, instead of the 4,000 mile range of the old Trident missiles. When compared to the maximum range of North Korea’s “long-range missile”–about 650 miles–the urgency to upgrade these subs becomes sheer comedy.

Let’s do some other comparisons. What else could that money be used for in the State of Washington? Pres. Clinton recently proposed spending about $100 million per year to preserve open space in several states; only a portion of this would be spent here. Loathe to give away money for the environment without offering some of it to the wealthy, Clinton and Gore boosted the amount of the proposal by including about $700 million in tax credits to finance bond offerings. The bonds, of course, will be held by wealthy folks, who’ll receive regular interest payments from the federal government, out of taxpayer funds. No need to do this with defense contracts, however, which are direct gifts to corporations and their shareholders.

What we often forget is that the whole Reagan revolution (of which Presidents Bush and Clinton are descendants) was not just about the redistribution of wealth from the middle class and poor to the rich via the federal government, but also about dumping the costs of social programs onto state and local governments. Hence, welfare reform has become a state-by-state issue and universal health care coverage is now impossible, as health insurers leave our state and move to areas with the most lax and least costly regulations.

Gov. Locke has been boasting about how this state’s WorkFirst program has reduced the number of people on welfare in Washington by 24%. Those are, naturally, the most highly skilled, highly educated, and easily employed people on welfare. The rest are single parents with multiple children, people who don’t speak English, people with physical or mental disabilities, folks with minimal or no job experience, the functionally illiterate, and child-only cases. In fact, a major proportion of welfare recipients in most states are child-only cases–children who have been left with grandparents or other relatives by parents who are in prison, living on the streets, or who simply don’t want their own kids. Exactly how the states expect these children to go to work is never mentioned. And expecting grandparents, who have already raised one, two, or sometimes even three families, to go back to work is insane. Even in Wisconsin, which has the most stringent welfare-to-work program in the nation, the state has recognized that child-only cases can’t be treated this way, and they’ve moved these cases off the welfare rolls into a new system that pays relatives to care for abandoned children who would otherwise cost far more to place in foster care.

So Wisconsin has admitted that there are special groups of welfare recipients that don’t fit the myth of the “welfare queen.” Nevertheless, Wisconsin state officials have recently released statistics showing that people kicked off the dole and into minimum wage jobs are faring worse than they did on welfare, in spite of the state’s booming economy. For example, high numbers of them couldn’t afford to pay bills each month for utilities (47%), housing (37%), and food (32%). Literally, at least a third of these folks are being kicked off state assistance onto the street to starve; after leaving welfare, almost 50% of them said they were less able to buy groceries. Disturbingly, the Wisconsin study noted that the average wage for former welfare recipients was $7.42 per hour–just $1 per hour less than our state’s most employable WorkFirst participants are receiving. And notably, Wisconsin’s study was done after the most easily employed people had already left welfare. It’s a clear sign of what’s to come here in Washington state. A study done by the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations and the UW’s Northwest Policy Center has found that, for our region, 70-80% of all job openings don’t provide enough income for a single parent with two children.

The money that Washington state has saved by dumping about a quarter of its welfare recipients off the rolls amounts to only $193 million. Whoopee. With $5 billion going down the drain to defense contractors for new missiles that will never be used and are a threat to our very survival, you’d think someone would notice this hypocrisy and say something–better yet, do something. Obviously such pragmatic, common sense observations are beyond the ability of our elected officials, who owe their blind allegiance to corporate constituents. It’s up to us to demand that money be diverted to social programs and not used to pay for useless military fluff.

Stealing from the Poor

Few people in Seattle are aware that the state legislature is starting a new session this month. One of the topics on the legislature’s agenda will be fine-tuning the state’s budget for the next biennium.

Gov. Gary Locke released his proposed budget in mid-December. Amidst all the fanfare about education and transportation improvements, there’s been little or no critical coverage of his proposals.

For example, the budget boasts: “Thanks to the success of welfare reform and the tobacco settlement, budget cuts are less, education priorities are funded, and no state parks will be closed.” Some victory. Because of Referendum 49, which provided a blank check to fund transportation projects that will drain $471 million from the state’s general fund, we can only be thankful that the tobacco industry stepped in to save our collective asses to the tune of $323 million in payments to the State of Washington in the next two years. The remainder of the shortfall ($148 million) will be made up by dumping single mothers off of welfare and into low-wage service jobs. Notably, the state subsidizes childcare for parents in the WorkFirst program for only one year; after that, they’re on their own. And if what the state claims is true–that the average wage of welfare-to-work participants is $8.42 per hour–then single parents will be back on the dole in no time.

Although Gov. Locke has definite ideas about where the tobacco money should be spent, it’s an issue that’s far from settled. Republicans and fiscally-conservative Democrats in the legislature will have their own ideas about increasing transportation funding, tax incentives for businesses, B&O tax cuts, and the like. Locke wants to split the pie as follows: $150 million for an ill-defined “Tobacco Prevention Trust Fund,” $73 million to cover the shortfall in the Basic Health Plan (BHP), $81 million to partially cover an even larger shortfall in Medicaid to children, and the remainder to other health services.

But there are problems with this scenario. Group medical insurance premiums are rising much faster than inflation, and are expected to increase at least 10% nationwide this year; local premiums are rising at a steeper rate. That money for the Basic Health Plan may run out very quickly. If it does, the BHP may need to slash benefits or drastically increase premiums–just as it did back in early 1997 in a cynical move to eliminate a long list of people waiting to get on the subsidized plan (solution: cut back on the subsidy and those people will just disappear, then you can claim your program is a “success”).

As it currently stands, the proposed budget will fund the children’s Medicaid program only enough to cover most of the expenses for children on the plan; from now on their parents, whose incomes are less than 200% of the federal poverty level, will have to pay for part of the premiums. In political parlance, this makes it a “subsidy” program, and not an “entitlement.” Even worse, the legislature may decide to spend less of the tobacco funds on the BHP and children’s Medicaid than the proposed budget does.

There are other problems. Gov. Locke wants to be remembered as the “education governor,” but his increases in teacher salaries are a joke. What he will be remembered for is pork-barrel transportation projects and corporate welfare.

Of the total funds for transportation, the bulk will go to accommodating cars and freight transport. A full $600 million will go to “corridor investments”–i.e., widening and improving freeway bottlenecks for single-occupant automobiles. Slightly more ($650 million) will be spent for “core HOV projects,” which will build more HOV lanes throughout the Everett-Seattle-Tacoma corridor, ostensibly for car pools and buses. But as we all know, drivers seldom comply with the restrictions for driving in the HOV lanes. This money will simply widen freeways, and not provide a long-term solution. And another $340 million will go to “freight mobility projects” to specifically help businesses meet their deadlines for shipping stuff in and out of the Puget Sound.

But the corporate welfare doesn’t end there. Gov. Locke wants to help rural regions of the state hit hard by the demise of the local timber industry and the lack of demand in Asia for the state’s agricultural products. Instead of encouraging farmers to diversify or grow organic crops (which are in high demand here at home), to meaningfully fund environmental reconstruction and tourism, or to stimulate small, local businesses, Gov. Locke decided to go the easy route: a tax “incentive” for software firms to relocate to rural areas of the state. Yes, that’s right: software firms.

According to the budget: “A business and occupation (B&O) tax credit equal to $1,000 per employee is proposed for firms that manufacture computer software or perform custom-programming services in distressed counties. The credit can continue for each year the employee position is retained … currently 175 software-related firms are operating in distressed counties.”

The proposed budget also details an enormous tax break for high-tech “Help Desk” service companies that do software installation and customer service: “For the first seven years, the credit is equivalent to a 100 percent B&O tax exemption. Thereafter, the credit is reduced to two-thirds of B&O tax liability.” You read that correctly: 100% exemption. Of course, the budget doesn’t say exactly how much the state would be losing in tax revenues if Puget Sound software companies move out to the boondocks.

The budget also provides state money for the software industry. $73 million will go to rural infrastructure improvements: “Roads, water systems, and telecommunications systems.” Even more money (about $9.5 million) is earmarked for planning, permitting, and “pre-development” work to sweeten the deal for developers, too. Add in $30 million of federal money for rural road improvements designed specifically for business parks, and it’s obvious who the real state welfare recipients are.

This budget also underfunds two types of infrastructure that rural areas have long needed and asked for: funding for rural hospitals and clinics ($177,000), and funding for farmworker housing ($8 million to build permanent housing for an estimated 157,000 workers … which pencils out to only $51 per person).

Only a bunch of suits could come up with this poor excuse for a budget. Can the state legislature straighten out these problems, or will they add more of their own? It’ll be interesting to see.

The proposed budget is posted on the Web at http://www.wa.gov/ofm/budget99.

The Underground

Anyone who regularly rides Metro buses has experienced the following: you’re sitting on a cold bus, stuck in heavy traffic, late for work or your appointment, dripping wet from a wait at a bus stop in the pouring rain, and fuming because the bus pulls in and out of traffic at every other block to pick up or drop off more passengers. If only you had a flying carpet. If only you could push a button and travel with the speed of light, like the e-mail messages you send every day. If only Seattle and King County had a real mass transit system.

We had the opportunity back in the early 1970’s, when the idea of light rail first came up for discussion. If we had built a light rail system then, we might not be looking at constant traffic gridlock like we have today. Today we’d be discussing an expansion of the existing rail system–a much cheaper alternative to building a whole new one right now. If only.

Since that’s not the case, we’re stuck with trying to figure out how to make light rail work in a city so spread out, with so many different areas of town that need rail service, that just figuring out the route has become a long, drawn-out exercise in futility, punctuated with arguments between neighborhood advocates, business interests, and public officials.

Key among those arguments is what the rail system will look like in various parts of town. In the north end, residents want a complete tunnel through the U-District and Roosevelt neighborhood, in spite of the fact that an elevated train would make the most sense along Roosevelt Way. In the south end, residents have already fought a victorious battle to run the rail line through the Rainier Valley instead of along the Duwamish River, where it would have become the Boeing Express. Now south-end folks are looking at a surface rail system that will displace heavy car and pedestrian traffic from Martin Luther King Way and steal land from 64 houses and apartment buildings, 67 businesses, and take about 245,450 square feet of land. In comparison, the north Seattle tunnel will displace only 2 residential buildings, 2 public facilities, 6 businesses, and take about 38,325 square feet of land.

No wonder south-end people are upset. Up until October, Sound Transit had been telling them that a tunnel under the south end was technically impossible–until, that is, Frank Coluccio Construction Co. (located in the Rainier Valley), whose specialty is underground construction, showed that it is in fact possible to build a tunnel there. Now Sound Transit is studying the option, whining about the cost, and threatening to move the rail line back to the Duwamish.

Cost is a big factor, but when we look at where the costs are spread out over the whole rail line, we can see that Sound Transit planners figured they could scrimp in the south end. The north Seattle and Capitol Hill rail lines are budgeted at $130 million per mile, while the Rainier Valley line is budgeted at only $46 million per mile.

Tunnels are expensive to build and operate, as Metro’s experience with the downtown bus tunnel shows. It ran $50 million over budget when it was built, and since then it has sucked up the bulk of Metro’s security budget to maintain it. It took about 900 Metro buses off the streets of downtown, leaving room for more cars–which did nothing to discourage people from driving downtown or encourage them to take the bus instead. Many people still have never ridden through the tunnel, don’t know where it is or how to get down to it, or don’t know that it exists at all. And the rails that were laid down in the tunnel in preparation for the coming light-rail system were the wrong size, and will have to be torn up and replaced, draining money from the new rail system construction.

But that doesn’t take away from the fact that other cities have full subway systems that work well. The difference here is the piece-meal way in which it’s being built, and the chosen mode of transport: light rail can’t climb steep grades and works best on flat terrain (like the geography of downtown Portland, a city built in a river valley). Why planners thought light rail was the perfect option for Seattle–a city built almost entirely on hills–is a mystery. If the original idea was to put the thing mostly underground, then the whole line should be a subway system, not just the Capitol Hill and north Seattle segments.

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the light rail system was released in December. Currently, there’s a 45-day public comment period.

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