Editorial board interview with Reps. Paul Harris and J.T. Wilcox
State Rep. Paul Harris said legislators did the right thing this year by killing a proposal to raise the gas tax by more than 10 cents a gallon, but they still failed to approve an alternative plan to raise money for much-needed transportation projects around the state.
The Vancouver Republican said a new transportation revenue package will be a "top priority" for him during next year's legislative session.
"Not being able to get a transportation package out was probably the biggest disappointment" during the 2013 legislative session, Harris said Monday, when he and his colleague, state Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, met with The Columbian's editorial board. Harris said the controversial Columbia River Crossing project, which he did not support, was part of the problem with the transportation package. Another problem: the gas tax hike proposed was simply too high, Harris said.
Legislators finished their lawmaking duties on June 29, and even though they passed a bare-bones transportation budget that pays for current projects, they adjourned without passing a $10 billion transportation package to cover future projects, including the now defunct CRC. The package would have raised the gas tax by more than 10 cents a gallon.
Although Wilcox and Harris said the 10-cent gas tax increase seemed too high, they said they didn't have a different number in mind for the tax.
"Having defeated what we thought was a bad gas tax revenue package gives us a chance to present to the voters improvements down the line," Wilcox said. "We don't know when that's going to happen. We need to allow that negotiation to take place."
Interstate 5 Bridge
Governors in Washington and Oregon decided to pull the plug on the CRC after the Washington Legislature adjourned without passing the $10 billion transportation package. During the legislative session, supporters of the CRC said it would take at least a decade to move forward on a different proposal to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River. They also said the project would fall out of line for federal dollars.
On Monday, Harris said he believes that 10-year figure was an exaggeration and that it will probably take three to five years to get a new project back before lawmakers. Harris pointed out that former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood even traveled to Olympia this year to tell legislators that the CRC was a top priority for the federal government. The feds now need to come back with money for a new bridge-replacement project, he said.
"What's interesting about transportation is the needs don't go away," Harris said.
Harris also suggested the federal government took the wrong approach to the CRC. Federal officials planned to cover the expenses of building a light-rail line on the bridge from Portland to Vancouver, but they should have offered money to cover the highway portion of the project instead.
Harris said he would support a new project that helps "the people of Southwest Washington that are in their cars," and that a new bridge should increase the number of I-5 lanes heading into Portland. If those conditions are met, Harris said he could support light rail if there's a good plan to pay for it.
Although transportation was discussed at length during the editorial board meeting, Harris said one of his main focuses this year has been health care. The state is working to expand Medicaid, as outlined in the federal health care reforms passed in 2010. The Medicaid program provides health insurance for the poor.
Harris, who serves on the House's Health Care and Wellness Committee, said he will meet with other legislators between now and the next session to discuss the state's program to expand Medicaid. He said the program will cost $150 million to get online, and $50 million each year to run. It also could increase insurance premiums, Harris said, but there are some benefits.
"What it will do is give more access to care to other people, and I think that's a good thing," Harris said.
New Senate majority
The representatives also said Monday that this year's power shift in the Senate had a significant impact on the state, resulting in the passage of a budget that was truly bipartisan.
This year, 23 Senate Republicans were able to join forces with two maverick Democrats to create a fiscally conservative majority in the Senate. Political gridlock between the Senate and the Democrat-led House extended the normally 105-day legislative session to 153 days. With just a couple days to spare, legislators passed a state operating budget and avoided a government shutdown.
"For the first time, we saw a functioning two-party system work," Wilcox said. "It took the House Democrats a long time to understand they couldn't just get what they wanted. And it took the Senate coalition a long time to understand that … they couldn't get everything they wanted."