Legislative outlook breakfast
The annual legislative outlook breakfast is organized by the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, Identity Clark County and Columbia River Economic Development Council.
If Clark County’s bipartisan legislative delegation is a microcosm of the Legislature, Olympia is in for battles next session over a sales tax hike and same-sex marriage.
During county business leaders’ 18th annual legislative outlook breakfast Thursday, the county’s Republican lawmakers made it clear they would reject a temporary half-cent sales tax increase and suggested voters would do the same if the measure made it to the ballot.
The three-year increase would help offset a $1 billion revenue shortfall and stave off cuts to education, social services and public safety, including long-term care for the elderly and disabled. The Legislature convenes Jan. 9 for a 60-day session during which it must approve a balanced state budget.
“I think it’s pretty clear there will be a revenue package discussed and sent out to voters,” said state Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver.
An election would cost $7 million to $8 million, depending on whether it’s held jointly with another election, said David Ammons, communication director at the Secretary of State.
State Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, and State Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said they would oppose sending the sales tax measure to voters.
Orcutt said he can’t justify that cost given the economic situation and voters’ past resistance to tax increases.
Pridemore, state Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, and Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said they would support handing the decision over to voters.
“I think in all things, the people should be given the opportunity to voice their opinion, especially on an issue that’s so contentious,” Rivers said.
Regardless of whether the measure is destined for the ballot, lawmakers must come up with a balanced budget during the session that assumes no additional revenue will be available, Pridemore said. If voters later approve the measure, the additional revenue would help avoid about $500 million in cuts.
Meanwhile, Zarelli said Gov. Christine Gregoire’s proposal to legalize marriage for gays and lesbians threatened to distract lawmakers from passing a balanced budget and derail bipartisan harmony achieved in the Senate.
“Culturally, it tears people apart, and that’s the case in the Legislature,” Zarelli said. “Our core responsibility is to pass a balanced budget.”
Pridemore offered the opposite view: There are enough lawmakers to compartmentalize and give full attention to both matters.
Pridemore said same-sex marriage is a civil rights priority.
“As a man, it isn’t my right to say when women should demand their rights,” Pridemore said, comparing the gay rights movement to that of women and blacks.
Wylie said the timing is right to legalize same-sex marriage.
“I’m very much in favor of that,” she said.
State Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, said he hadn’t reviewed the governor’s proposal and didn’t know yet whether he would vote for it. He said he supports legalizing same-sex marriage but would allow churches to decide whether to perform the ceremonies.
County lawmakers said they find more common ground on protecting school levy equalization and simplifying the state’s regulatory system. School levy equalization gives state money to property-poor school districts to equalize the resources to educate students.
Probst said there is a need for regulatory reform in the state. He said the process of getting a construction permit now is too unpredictable and cumbersome.
“People should know how long it takes to get a permit,” Probst said. “That’s just basic good business.”
Excessive regulation has been costly to the state and businesses, Zarelli said.
Harris said efforts are under way to reincarnate some unsuccessful bills that would streamline the construction permit process. House Bill 1961, for instance, would have required permits to be approved or denied within 90 days. Permitting for new construction can sometimes take years in the state, Orcutt said.
“I know we need to speed up the process,” Harris said. “There are a lot of jobs out there. You would hate to think the process is stopping or delaying construction projects.”
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