Changes at the Capitol

Session brings new governor, new local lawmakers, upheaval in Senate, another shortfall

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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At first glance, the 2013 state legislative session, which convenes in Olympia on Monday, might seem like a repeat of last year. Legislators must tackle yet another budget shortfall and a 2018 deadline still looms as they figure out how to comply with a court order to "amply fund" public schools.

But there will be a new governor at the helm, a unique coalition in the Senate that's poised to give Republicans more power, and talk of a transportation funding package that could go before voters in the fall. What's more, that package may or may not include roughly $450 million needed for the Columbia River Crossing project to move forward.

Additionally, more than half of Clark County's legislative delegation is either new to Olympia or taking on a new role in a different chamber. While the area's delegation might lose some institutional knowledge, state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said fresh faces representing Clark County can be a good thing.

"We have some great young talent in our neck of the woods," Rivers said. "We may not know what we can't do. … It allows you to try a whole bunch of stuff that people are (otherwise) afraid to try."

Clark County's delegation

This legislative session will be Rivers' first as a senator.

She was elected to the House in 2010, and appointed last summer to succeed Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, who resigned in May. Rivers was elected to the Senate seat in November. She'll have a seat at the table to discuss education funding, as she's been tapped to serve on the Senate's Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee and the Ways and Means Committee, which makes key spending decisions.

Another newbie from Clark County is Sen.-elect Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, who replaces Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver.

Cleveland will sit on the K-12 education, health care, and environmental committees.

Cleveland, government affairs director for Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, said her assignments are "such a perfect fit with my private and nonprofit experience. … We have to consider in everything that we do whether we're promoting healthy communities" that "consist of access to quality education, to a job, and access to health care. So that's my starting point."

Cleveland and Rivers will both have leadership roles in their party caucuses, which will give them more say in the lawmaking process.

In the House, an educator and two small-business owners from the county will embark on their first legislative session. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, is a teaching coach at Evergreen Public Schools who says she's excited to bring her background to Olympia. She's also been appointed to serve as vice chair of the House's committee on K-12 education.

"We have a lot of reforms in the state that have come through that districts haven't had the time to implement," Stonier said. "We really need to support the districts in doing that, and doing it right."

Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, helps run his family's landscaping business and said he's looking forward to finding ways to increase jobs in Clark County and to help other small business owners. Rep.-elect Liz Pike, R-Camas, who operates a farm in Fern Prairie and owns an advertising agency, said she hopes to take on regulations that can hinder businesses.

In the county's three major legislative districts, the most senior members are Sen. Don Benton, a Vancouver Republican who's served in the Legislature since 1995, and Rep. Jim Moeller, a Vancouver Democrat who's served in the House since 2003.

Benton will be second in command of the Senate Republican leadership, serving as deputy leader. Moeller is speaker pro tempore of the House, meaning he presides over debates on the floor. Moeller also has a seat on the Rules Committee, which decides which bills progress from their committees to the House floor, where bills are debated and voted on.

Benton and Moeller are expected to sit on the transportation committees in their respective chambers.

Major issues for county

No doubt the Columbia River Crossing will be a topic of conversation on those transportation committees. Last year, the Legislature passed a bill that gives the Washington State Department of Transportation the authority to establish tolls to pay for the project. The proposed $3.5 billion CRC project would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River, rebuild freeway interchanges and extend a light rail line from Portland into Vancouver.

This year, proponents of the project will try to secure the roughly $450 million needed from the state's budget. Without securing at least some of that money this year, the project will have trouble moving forward, supporters say.

But many Republican lawmakers from Clark County want to see the project redesigned to exclude the light rail line. During a recent meeting with the county's business and industry leaders, Benton outlined an ultimatum on the project: "If the light rail component comes off, then we can talk about funding for the CRC."

Meanwhile, Moeller's mantra has been: "the bridge will be built with light rail or not at all."

Most Democrats from the county say the project must move forward with light rail in order to secure federal money for the project.

Stonier, however, said on the campaign trail that her stance would be determined by the outcome of a vote regarding light rail. In November, voters living in the C-Tran district rejected a measure to raise sales taxes to pay for maintaining and operating light rail in Vancouver.

Stonier said she's interpreting that election outcome to mean her constituents disapprove of light rail in general, and she will have to vote accordingly in the Legislature.

Pike is working on two pieces of stormwater legislation. One would delay until August 2016 new Department of Ecology standards that require new land development to include pervious pavement, rain gardens and roofs with vegetation on them, Pike said.

The second bill would create a pilot program to test alternatives for protecting the environment against stormwater pollution. Counties that have fallen out of compliance with the Department of Ecology's stormwater rules could apply to test an alternative program to see how effective it is at protecting the environment, Pike said.

Under the bill, Clark County would be one of a couple counties that qualifies for the pilot program. Clark County commissioners adopted a different ordinance to address stormwater runoff and were put on notice by the state that they were in violation of their National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. Pike said its unfair to reject the county's alternative approach to stormwater because the state hasn't even tested that alternative.

"How do they know that, when they didn't allow it to be tried?" Pike said.

Up for debate

In addition to debating light rail on the CRC, state lawmakers will have plenty to spar over this session.

Last month, Pike made waves when she said she was considering a bill that would allow public school teachers to carry concealed firearms at school. Teachers would volunteer to participate, and they would pay for their own weapons and mandatory firearms training, Pike said.

Several other Republicans from Clark County have been reluctant to support that idea, but they do say debate is needed in Olympia to address the mass shootings that have taken place recently at the Clackamas Town Center mall in Oregon and at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

Cleveland and state Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, both said state lawmakers should take a close look at gaps in the mental health care system. The recent shootings indicate that there is a disconnect between those programs and the people who need them.

"The biggest problem is how we deal with people who have mental health challenges," Wylie said. "We have yet to create the community-based system that we should have and the public awareness and tools that we need … . It will never be perfect, but we can do a whole lot better."

Wylie also said some gun regulations are worth talking about, including tougher rules on assault-style weapons, multiple ammunition rounds and gun shows.

Lawmakers also will debate how to address an estimated $900 million budget shortfall while also complying with a recent state Supreme Court decision that ruled the state wasn't putting enough money into the education system. Democrats and Republicans have different ideas about how much money is needed to adequately pay for education and exactly where that money should be spent.

"Throwing money at the same education system is not going to work," said Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver and a former Evergreen Public Schools board member. "We have to educate differently."

Many legislative Democrats argue that tax increases are necessary to meet this year's budgetary challenges. Incoming Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said on the campaign trail that he wouldn't support general tax increases, and Republicans say they'll try to make sure he keeps that promise.

Also, Republicans expect to have more power than they did last session. They've gained support from two conservative Democrats, giving their unique coalition a 25-24 majority over the rest of the Senate Democrats.

The new coalition has restructured Senate committees, putting conservatives in charge of many of the chamber's high-stakes policy panels, allowing them to set the agenda in that chamber. If they all vote together, they'll also have control of which bills pass out of the Senate.

The state House, on the other hand, has a comfortable Democratic majority. In order for bills to move forward, the two chambers will have to hammer out their differences in an efficient way, Vick said, noting that he doesn't want legislators to be called back for a special session to finish their work.

Citizens "don't want us wasting money on special sessions," Vick said. "They want us to get our work done when we're supposed to get it done."

Other bills in the works

Benton announced recently that he will introduce legislation to, through a constitutional amendment, protect the two-thirds supermajority requirement for raising taxes, a measure voters approved this fall.

He also said he plans to introduce a measure that would deny driver's licenses for those living in the state illegally.

"When it comes to the security of driver's licenses, which are among the most important documents issued by state government, Washington is at the bottom of the list of states," Benton said in a statement.

Vick is considering a bill that would make it easier for people to get electrician's licenses in Washington state, even if they left their previous employer on bad terms. Previous employers have to sign off during the licensing process in Washington state, said Vick, who added that he's still researching how to best address the problem.

One of Vick's constituents owns an electrical company and "he has problems hiring folks who have transferred to Washington in search of a job," Vick said. If incoming, experienced electricians can't get their credentials in Washington, they have to go through the apprenticeship process again, Vick said.

Wylie saw success last session in passing a bill that cracks down on government contract abuses, as well as streamlines the contracting process in a way that makes it easier for small businesses to compete for those contracts. This session, she said she hopes to focus on fixing areas of state spending that are inefficient.

Wylie also will serve as vice chair of the newly created Government Accountability and Oversight Committee, which will help decide just how the state will regulate the sale of marijuana now that voters approved a measure legalizing the substance for recreational use.

Moeller is resurrecting several bills that didn't pass last session, including one aimed to help business at Kiggins Theatre by allowing alcohol to be served in the auditorium. So far, Moeller has pre-filed more than a dozen bills for the upcoming session, including one to allow a payment plan of sorts for citizens struggling with their property tax bills.

Rivers plans to reintroduce a bill she worked on last year with outgoing state Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, that would make sure students learn about postsecondary options besides attending a four-year university, such as attending a trade school or entering an apprenticeship program. Rivers said the bill has been tweaked so it has a better chance of passing this time around.

Rivers also plans to introduce a bill to eliminate automobile allowances for elected officials at the county level.

"None of the people in my district get paid to drive to work," Rivers said. "Especially in tough times, that's simply unacceptable."

District changes

Clark County now technically includes five of the state's 49 legislative districts. The 17th, 18th and 49th districts are contained within the county, while the 20th District dips into the northern portion of the county, including Woodland. The 14th District, which includes parts of the Cascades and Yakima, crosses into a sparsely populated eastern portion of the county.

State Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, who has served several years in the 18th District, now serves the 20th District. Legislative district boundaries were redrawn last year to adjust to population changes revealed in the 2000 Census.

The 2013 Legislative session is 105 days long, and legislators-elect will be sworn into office on Monday.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com