In Our View: Exercise in Futility?

Gregoire's budget plan overlooks CRC; will Legislature take up the challenge?

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The exercise seems rather pointless. Gov. Chris Gregoire, who has only a few more weeks as a resident of the governor's mansion, last week presented her proposed biennial state budget for 2013-15.Why? Well, state law says she must. Which led state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, to post the comment, "The sounds from the recycle bins in Olympia are deafening!" on Columbian.com. Nothing against the governor, mind you; it's just that her proposed budget can be adopted, modified, or ignored by incoming Gov. Jay Inslee and the new Legislature.

"She'd be the first to admit that she's a lame duck," Moeller said in a phone interview. "She's required to present a budget, and she did that."

Budget Gregoire must, so budget she did. And for those of us in this part of the state, the most noteworthy aspect was a lack of new funding for the Columbia River Crossing project. Which may have been more a fit of frustration than an editorial commentary on the importance of the project.

"Last year, CRC was part of the proposal, and I couldn't get the Legislature to work on it," Gregoire said in a phone interview with The Columbian following the release of the proposed budget. "Overall there wasn't a consensus."

That could be a problem, considering that Washington must come up with some plan for financing its $450 million portion of a new I-5 bridge and surrounding highway and mass-transportation projects. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber -- who, unlike Gregoire, is in office until at least early 2015 -- included $450 million for his state's share of the $3.5 billion project in the budget proposal he released last month. Gregoire, instead, laid the project at the feet of the Legislature.

"The CRC is a top priority," she said. "They're going to have to put a package together. They can't kick the can down the road. They did that last year; we can't wait. There's federal money at stake."

But there are other things at stake, as well. While the CRC is of vital interest to Clark County, legislators across the state likely will be more concerned with funding elementary and secondary education. The Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Legislature is not making enough progress in that regard.

"You know where the real fight is? The fight is K-through-12," Gregoire said.

Gregoire's budget, in an effort to provide more money for education, would use wholesale taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel to help offset costs for public schools.

"If we had to go to the public for both K-through-12 and transportation and one of them has to be kicked off, that wouldn't bode well for transportation," she said. But she remains confident that the Columbia River Crossing will be a priority for lawmakers.

"I think people have come to understand it's an economic corridor for the West Coast," she said. "I think people recognize it's a vital economic corridor."

That recognition remains to be seen, and impressing the significance of the project upon fellow lawmakers will be an important task for Clark County's legislators in the coming months. Inslee, during his gubernatorial campaign, promised to not increase taxes, a pledge that further lessens the options in Olympia.

"In the upcoming legislative session, Governor-elect Inslee will lay out his own budget priorities that reflect his vision for state government," read a statement released last week by his office.

Whether or not the CRC is part of the horizon in Inslee's vision will vastly impact Clark County. And it will show that Gregoire's efforts in putting together a budget were, indeed, rather pointless.