State lawmakers hold town halls

Tone, topics differ at three events across the county Saturday

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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The topics ranged from statewide programs such as public education down to issues that fit in the palm of your hand, like license-plate tabs.

Residents of two local legislative districts had the chance Saturday to question their state lawmakers about those issues, and pretty much everything in between.

Republican senators and representatives from the 17th and 18th districts held town halls at three sites in Clark County.

State Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, hosted 18th District town halls in Battle Ground and Camas with state representatives Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, and Ann Rivers, R-La Center.

In the 17th District, Vancouver Republicans Sen. Don Benton and Rep. Paul Harris hosted a town hall at Mountain View High School in the Evergreen district.

The Battle Ground and Mountain View events each drew about 60 constituents. The lawmakers opened their town halls with updates on the current legislative session, and their takes on significant issues in Olympia.

As far as public participation went, the formats and the topics differed: In the Mountain View High media center, audience members wrote their questions on cards, and Benton and Harris wound up with more big-picture issues.

In Battle Ground City Hall, the legislators called on audience members to speak, and the questions tended more toward personal issues and problems.

But one big theme unified many of the topics: the dollar sign. That includes the state budget process, which has barely started, Harris said. The Legislature is almost two-thirds of the way through its 60-day session, which started on Jan. 9, and people finally are getting to the budget after working on things such as gay marriage, Harris said.

Benton said that the state’s budget writers must acknowledge the difference between “must-have” and “nice-to-have” programs and services.

“Government was created to do the essentials,” Benton said. His fellow Republicans are not alone in that sentiment, he added. “Most Washington citizens are conservative on financial issues, regardless of party.”

Public education has been designated as the No. 1 item on the list of essentials. House Republics want a separate education budget that fully funds the K-12 system, Harris said. Then the Legislature could bargain on everything else. But Democrats are still pitching a sales tax increase for education.

Rivers said her primary focus is transportation. That includes the Columbia River Crossing, which in turn, includes the issue of tolling.

Rivers noted that tolls paid by 65,000 Clark County commuters who work in Portland would “punch a huge hole in our local economy.”

The state has gotten shifty by raising fees when it can’t raise taxes, a couple of lawmakers said.

In the Battle Ground meeting, a truck owner told the legislators that the license tab on his pickup is now up to $80.

Orcutt sympathized. When a person does not receive additional services after paying a bigger fee, “That’s not a fee,” Orcutt said. “That’s a tax.”

Eventually, Harris said, the numbers can reach job-killing proportions. Harris described a local retailer who has been trying to open a second store for more than a year. He was facing a $900,000 traffic impact fee that finally was reduced to $400,000.

Benton said he talked with a painter who employed four people. After trying to keep up with regulatory paperwork, he decided it was cheaper to fold his business and go to work for a bigger company.

There is some good financial news, Zarelli said, and it reflects a change in how the state does business. A lot of reforms the state has been forced into -- “Fixing things that aren’t working” -- are starting to pay off, Zarelli said.

“Nobody likes to be forced,” Zarelli said. “But in government, sometimes you have to be forced.”

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558 or tom.vogt@columbian.com.