Local lawmakers leery of roads package

Transportation plan would raise gas tax, do little for region, some say at breakfast event

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Business groups' 2014 legislative priorities

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Several state legislators from Clark County remain apprehensive about supporting a transportation plan that would raise gas taxes but include little in projects for Southwest Washington, they told business and community leaders Wednesday morning.

Some stressed the need for reforming the state's transportation system first, so gas tax dollars go further. Others said there simply isn't enough project money for Clark County in a $12.3 billion transportation proposal being floated in the state Senate. That plan would raise the state gas tax by 11.5 cents per gallon. It would provide just $41.4 million in new state projects in Clark County, and set aside an additional $35 million for local governments in the county to use on their roads.

"I'm a no vote until you give me some projects," Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, told a crowd of more than 100 at a breakfast event hosted by business organizations Identity Clark County, the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce and the Columbia River Economic Development Council.

Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, said it is time for legislators to start thinking about other revenue streams for transportation besides an increased gas tax. She said she's exploring a tax based on vehicle miles driven, but that she wouldn't want the government to be able to track where a person travels.

The panel of legislators also touched on their priorities for the upcoming 60-day legislative session, which begins Jan. 13. Many stressed the need to dedicate more money to education, and to foster business growth by reforming environmental regulations.

"We have given way too much authority to the Department of Ecology for rulemaking," Harris said. "They are running amok."

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said that at one point, all of those regulations were put in place for a reason.

"Every one of the laws starts with one of us," Moeller said. "We ask the department to implement our government. They are making rules based on statutes that we pass."

Education dollars

Some legislators said Wednesday that Washington state needs to continue to put money into K-12 education to comply with the state Supreme Court's McCleary decision. This year, legislators agreed to a budget that puts about $1 billion more into public schools, but a majority of that was made possible by a one-time federal payment to establish U.S. health care reforms, Harris pointed out.

Some state lawmakers say they'll need to put about $3 billion more into K-12 to meet the McCleary mandate that the state adequately pays for basic education. Moeller said the state might need to raise taxes to meet those education demands. Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said the state should consider closing any outdated corporate tax loopholes as a way to pay for education.

"We will get there, but it's going to take us some time and it's going to cause us some pain," Moeller said. "We can no longer do it on the cheap."

Stonier and Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, also stressed the need to support career and technical education programs, which help students who want to enter a trade after high school instead of attending a university.

"One of the things we can do (to encourage workforce development) is to continue to fund excellent programs like the Clark County Skills Center," Benton said, adding that some students want to be auto mechanics or homebuilders, not doctors.

Business priorities

The business groups hosting Wednesday's event said they hope lawmakers focus on infrastructure, economic development and education during the 2014 session. They highlighted a list of transportation projects needed in Clark County, many of which are missing from the Senate's recent transportation proposal. One of those projects is a new Interstate 5 interchange at Mill Plain Boulevard.

Columbia River Economic Development Council President Mike Bomar told legislators that a fair transportation package would include about $800 million in projects for Southwest Washington.

Business leaders asked state lawmakers to support a faster permitting process for infrastructure projects. They also want lawmakers to restore money to the public works trust fund, which was used this year to fill holes in the state budget. Local governments in Clark County missed out on getting low-interest loans from the trust fund for their projects, legislators said.

Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce President Kelly Parker said restoring money to the public works trust fund "will be an uphill battle."

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, and Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, also participated in Wednesday's legislative panel, which was at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.