Mercer Island hosted a special meeting with two members of the 41st District delegation on Nov. 28 at City Hall to talk about legislative priorities for 2018, though discussion topics ranged from property taxes to electric vehicles.
According to its agenda bill, the city was mainly interested in exploring issues that require participation and approval of the Washington State Department of Transportation, including cooperating on a master plan for Aubrey Davis Park, managing Interstate 90 on- and off-ramps and improving Island Crest Way access.
Mercer Island is also planning to support priorities listed by the Association of Washington Cities, Sound Cities Association, Washington State School Directors’ Association and King County Behavioral Health. Some of these were up for discussion in 2017 — including raising the purchase age for tobacco/vapor products from 18 to 21, adjusting the property tax cap, addressing the housing and homelessness crisis and fully funding education — and appear again on draft agendas for the various groups.
The 41st District legislators hold sway over a few of these topics. State Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairs the House Transportation Committee. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, serves as vice chair of the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee. State Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, was recently chosen to serve as chair of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, though she was not able to attend Tuesday’s meeting.
Senn and Clibborn provided a recap of last year’s session — the longest session in Washington State history — before the council went on to discuss its 2017 priorities and determine which ones to carry forward into the 2018 session. Senn talked about successes in children’s mental health and paid family leave, and noted that the Legislature was able to pass its transportation budget on time.
Clibborn said that the 2017 capital budget was not approved, and that the operating budget — and an education funding plan that may raise property taxes in wealthy school districts such as those in the 41st District — passed after several special sessions. Clibborn said she would try to include funding for Aubrey Davis Park in the 2018 supplemental capital budget.
Clibborn said she thinks the state did “a great disservice” by taking capacity out of the property tax, and said the reaction to the tax increase for education, coupled with Sound Transit 3, could be a “primal scream.” The city of Mercer Island is also considering going to voters in 2018 for a property tax levy lid lift.
While the city will likely choose to continue supporting general priorities relating to the environment, housing, mental health and education across the state, the I-90 mobility issues are specific to Mercer Island.
Maintaining full access to the I-90 HOV lanes was the top priority for the city in 2017, and though that was not achieved, Mercer Island did receive a $10 million settlement from Sound Transit to improve mobility. Clibborn called the end result “valuable,” but said the process was a “disappointment.”
Mercer Island’s access was restricted when the I-90 center roadway closed for East Link light rail construction in June 2017. People driving to and from the Island alone lost access not only to the center express lanes (a special exemption granted when the new I-90 bridge, and future high-capacity transit options, were being planned in 1976) but also to the Island Crest Way westbound on-ramp, which changed to High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) only.
A potential solution is a High Occupancy Toll (HOT) ramp, since the HOV designation is set, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Mercer Island and many other agencies tried to appeal the decision to the U.S. Department of Transportation, but were denied.
“Mercer Island’s federal delegation, Washington state, WSDOT, Sound Transit, King County and other local partners joined Mercer Island in encouraging the United States Department of Transportation to protect Mercer Island’s access rights to the R8A lanes via Island Crest Way,” according to the agenda bill. “The federal government, however, does not have the authority to grant exceptions to current law regarding HOV lanes access, even for on‐ramps.”
As the city and its Congressional delegation continue to await opportunities that may arise with the federal government, the focus for Mercer Island will be on pursuing actions at the state and local level. The city also invited its lobbyist, Tony Williams, to the Nov. 28 meeting. Clibborn said that the city should continue sharing data with WSDOT and her office, and wait for traffic to settle into its new patterns before addressing HOV access again.
The 2018 legislative session gets underway in Olympia on Jan. 8, and it will be a short (60 day) session. Senn said the priorities will be to pass the operating budget and other “leftover” items, potentially use the new Democratic majority to pass policy items around voter registration and equal pay, and address the opioid crisis and car tab issues.
There may also be a discussion about whether to offset the property tax with another revenue stream, such as an adjustment in the B and O tax, or a new tax on carbon or capital gains, but anything proposed would likely end up on the November ballot, Senn said.
See the Mercer Island City Council’s Nov. 28 agenda bill for more.
According to the Dec. 5 agenda bill, the draft 2018 legislative priorities for Mercer Island are:
1. Improve I-90 access and reduce impacts to local streets
2. Fully fund education
3. Allocate recreation/transportation funding for Aubrey Davis Park Master Plan
4. Address funding of city services
5. Enhance health and human services and address the housing and homelessness crisis
6. Preserve the environment
7. Support AWC and SCA legislative priorities
This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 30, and at 2 p.m. on Dec. 1.