CRC, education, jobs are main topics at legislative breakfast

Southwest Washington lawmakers sound off on biggest issues facing the state

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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The 2013 legislative session will be a busy one for state lawmakers.

They will have to come up with a plan to make sure the state's education system is adequately paid for while also working to improve the economy, legislators told Clark County business leaders on Friday morning. And, they'll likely grapple with a major transportation package that will include money to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge.

All nine legislators-elect from the county's 17th, 18th and 49th districts participated in the legislative breakfast, along with 14th District Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima. The 14th District now reaches into parts of eastern Clark County.

Many of the lawmakers pointed to the importance of securing funding for the Columbia River Crossing project during the upcoming session, although some of them continued to disagree on major elements of the megaproject.

State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said he'll be happy to support a funding proposal for the CRC this session — if the light rail line is removed from the project.

"The CRC project in my opinion has been an absolute boondoggle from the beginning," Benton said. "If the light rail component comes off, then we can talk about funding for the CRC."

In response to Benton's comments, Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said the CRC is a compromise project that includes the interests of many people, not just those living in Clark County. Moeller said any transportation package lawmakers come up with will include other magaprojects from across the state.

"There's a package that's going to come forward that's going to include funding for the CRC," Moeller said. "It's going to include light rail because it's a compromise project. It's a compromise between the state of Oregon, and it's a compromise between the state of Washington, and two different cities, and the federal government, and we all look at the same thing differently."

The $3.5 billion CRC project would replace the I-5 Bridge and nearby freeway interchanges, as well as extend a light rail line from Portland into Vancouver.

Democratic Sen.-elect Annette Cleveland said the light rail part of the project was agreed upon several years ago. Now it's time to move forward, she said.

In order for the project to stay on track, Oregon and Washington this year will need to commit to paying about $450 million each toward the CRC, proponents of the project say. Oregon's governor has outlined about that much in his budget proposal, and Washington's governor is expected to roll out her proposal next week.

The legislative breakfast was hosted by the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, the Columbia River Economic Development Council and Identity Clark County.

Many of the lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans included, agreed that the state needs to fix its stormwater runoff regulations, which have stymied development in the county. They also discussed the roughly $1 billion budget shortfall they'll face this session; revenue increases, such as a new gas tax; and ideas for complying with a recent state Supreme Court decision that ruled the Legislature wasn't putting enough money into the education system.

The 105-day legislative session begins Jan. 14.

Look for a complete version of this story in Saturday's edition of The Columbian.