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"Finally, the state has a budget"
"The state legislature reached agreement on a budget April 27 after twice extending its session.The long and rancorous session ended with less money for ferries than local legislators say they would have liked, but more than the possible alternatives.For such a difficult process, we did rather well, said Sen. Betti Sheldon, D-23rd District. Rep. Beverly Woods, R-23rd District, admitted that the ferry funding was just a first step, but said the budget was a solid foundation on which to build the ferry system for the future.The budget includes $10.25 million to keep ferries running through June 30, 2001, the rest of the two-year budget cycle, as well as $20 million a year for ferry operations over the next five years.Although still a decline over past years, legislators said some cuts were inevitable after Initiative 695 undercut the ferry system's prime funding source, the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax.Obviously, I would have liked to not have any cuts, Sheldon said. But the reality is, (I-695) happened.The new budget means no fare increases - except the usual seasonal hikes - until June 30, 2001. There will be some service decreases, particularly on evenings and weekends. A newly-created ferry funding task force will continue during the off season to explore financing alternatives for the ferry service. Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-35th District, warned that, even with a 10-15 percent fare increase in 2001, the ferry service would not be able to pay for maintenance, capital projects, services and new purchases. If we don't come up with the money, we're going to be in really big trouble, she said.According to Sheldon, the new agreement should take care of auto ferries through 2003, with passenger-only service covered through mid-2001. This gives us time to look for some solutions - what we need, and how we're going to pay for it, said Sheldon. Haigh said citizen initiatives should be better integrated into the biennium system in order to avoid legislative crack-ups like one that ocurred this year. The 2000 legislative session was expected to be a supplementary session during which the budget was tweaked and fine-tuned. But it turned into an extended session.I believe initiatives are just fine, but if they have a significant impact changing the funding in a budget, it should have to wait until next biennium, she said.That's why we were here so long this year. We had to re-write all three budgets."