OLYMPIA — With two days left in the 2013 regular legislative session, Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, looks to be a player.
His views on everything from abortion to immigration policy, from taxes to the Columbia River Crossing, now are interwoven with the majority position in the 49-member Senate and are at odds with the Democratic-controlled House and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee. Those controversies will likely be debated in a special session.
Some credit Benton’s narrow re-election victory in November for being the final linchpin that created the coalition that leaves this current Legislature sharply divided on several fiscal and social issues. The 17th District voters’ decision to re-elect Benton made him the very last of 25 required votes to form a historic conservative majority coalition, of which Benton is the caucus deputy leader.
“His election made the coalition possible,” said Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, one of two maverick Democrats who joined Republicans in the Senate and created a conservative coalition when Benton’s reelection pushed the GOP total to 23 senators.
And now, as the session winds to a close and budgets come to a vote, Benton has a key local victory in mind over the Democratic House majority and governor: preventing immediate construction of the Columbia River Crossing, the approximately $3.4 billion replacement for the Interstate 5 Bridge between Vancouver and Portland.
“(Our coalition) is the only thing standing in the way of light rail and $8 tolls (per car),” Benton said. Tolls have not been set, but at rush hour could be about $4 each way, according to the project planners.
The majority coalition, with Benton leading the charge, has fought against construction funding for the CRC.
“We’re going to need to see the CRC disconnected from any transportation package,” said Senate Majority Coalition Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, in a press conference Wednesday.
In that transportation package, most House Democrats and the governor supported raising taxes and dedicating $450 million to match Oregon’s commitment and begin construction for the bridge. CRC planners say that money is needed by September in order to keep the project afloat.
Benton and other members of the Senate coalition have criticized the project, taking issue with the bridge’s height, price tag and proposed light-rail line.
“A part of smart spending is investing in a CRC that is built responsibly,” Benton said. “That includes making sure it is built with businesses upriver in mind, as well as keeping tolling in check, and without light rail.”
“We all want a new bridge, but we want a bridge done right,” said Benton. At the same time, Benton dismissed Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s comments that removing light rail from the CRC will kill the project, and that Oregon officials will be unwilling to start over again on a new bridge design.
Benton told The Seattle Times that if Oregon walks away from the project, then “that would be way too bad for Oregon. What will eventually happen is those folks who are working in Oregon will eventually get tired of the commute and they will find jobs in Washington.”
Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said she thinks Benton’s emphasis on killing CRC funding has distracted the Legislature from other issues important to Clark County.
Benton has been outspoken this session on abortion and says it is a moral issue he is unwilling to compromise on. He unsuccessfully proposed legislation requiring parental notification when minors receive abortions.
Additionally, the Republican-led Senate coalition blocked legislation passed by the House that would mandate health insurance coverage for abortions by refusing to bring the bill to a vote.
Democrats like Cleveland said the coalition’s refusal to allow a vote on abortion was detrimental to women in Washington, as was the Senate’s refusal to vote on the Dream Act, which would allow illegal immigrants to receive state-based financial aid for college.
“I just don’t have an understanding of why (the coalition) wouldn’t at least vote on it,” Cleveland said.
Blocking the Dream Act falls in step with Benton’s views. He proposed a bill at the beginning of the session to prevented any illegal immigrant from qualifying for college financial aid.
Benton and the coalition aren’t just at odds with the House on social issues. The two chambers are divided on fiscal issues such as taxes and spending, too.
State lawmakers are working to address a roughly $1.2 billion budget shortfall and a court order that they spend more on basic K-12 education. Democrats say new revenue is needed to solve those problems while avoiding painful losses to social services, while Republicans are focusing their efforts on spending cuts.
Benton credits the difficulty in passing tax increases this session solely to the coalition.
“We have been able to stop tax increases,” he said. “That never would have happened if we were not in control.”
Stevie Mathieu of The Columbian contributed to this report.