In our view: Let Local Voters Speak

CRC ballot measure must originate here, and not be mandated by Congress

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Jaime Herrera Beutler is correct in urging a public vote on the light-rail portion of the Columbia River Crossing. We advocated a countywide vote on this project almost a year ago. But the congresswoman from Southwest Washington is wrong on how she is trying to get it done. She’s trying to game the system, trying to force a federal decision on local government, something, by the way, that Republicans usually dislike.At a Thursday meeting of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Herrera Beutler tried to insert language into a bill that would require a local public vote as a condition for federal funding of the Federal New Starts Transit (for light rail). But that’s a misguided approach, as U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., indicated at the meeting: “For us to dictate that a city hold a referendum is outrageous.”

To be clear, it’s the awkward and dictatorial process (a mandate from the feds to the locals) and not the public vote itself that is wrong. As we editorialized March 11, it’s the local leaders who “must find a way to put these issues on a countywide ballot as a nonbinding advisory vote,” and not some federal panel inside the Beltway.

And that’s why we’re glad committee chairman Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., allowed Herrera Beutler’s addition to an amendment to be removed.

The figurative tug-of-war between DeFazio and Herrera Beutler demonstrates how the CRC has become as controversial as it is complex. The Democrat from Springfield said he is “not sure what she’s trying to do here, except to perhaps excite people and appeal to a certain constituency in Vancouver -- I have no idea if it’s a majority or minority.”

The Republican from Camas aggressively declared, “You’re darn straight I am going to do everything in my power to make sure the people I represent are asked to approve whether or not they’re going to put their hard-earned tax dollars into a federal program. People are going to be asked to pay for maintenance and operation (of light rail). … Those people who are going to be required to pay this money have a right to say,’Yes, we want this project,’ or ‘No, we don’t want this project.’”

We agree with part but not all of that statement. Herrera Beutler’s eagerness to “do everything in my power” is commendable, but it shouldn’t include getting Congress to force Vancouver or Clark County (or any other local jurisdiction) to conduct a local referendum on a public works project.

Specifically, according to the language Herrera Beutler inserted into the amendment: “The public referendum shall include jurisdictions responsible for providing such share of funding only where the jurisdiction does not have an existing fixed guideway public transportation system.” And such wording, as The Columbian’s Andrea Damewood reported in a Friday story, made it clear that in this case, only Clark County would need to hold the vote.

The representatives wandered off onto a side argument about whether this maneuver constituted an earmark (DeFazio’s contention). It doesn’t really matter. The language was removed, and as Mica noted in a benediction of sorts: “Things are a little touchy here. I want parties to go back and try and resolve the issue. We could go on and on here.”

And we likely will, which is a good thing. It’s all a proper part of the vetting process. Much of the CRC will be funded by the feds, which will be understandably conditional. But a significant local contribution also is necessary. And that’s why local voters should be allowed to speak … as allowed by local leaders, not mandated by Congress.