Small cities lobby to be heard in Olympia

Battle Ground, Washougal, Camas among those pushing transportation, infrastructure funding

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With the state Legislature less than a month away from wrapping up its winter short session, lobbyists for Clark County’s small cities are working to ensure their interests are met.

Without high-priced lobbying groups at their disposal, the cities are relying on the well-tested route of joining forces and pooling their relatively scant financial resources in an attempt to nudge lawmakers. Whether that will be enough to shift the conversation in Olympia during the waning weeks of the session is a question that will likely go unanswered until the session ends.

Officials for the cities say they’re not holding out hope their wish lists will be met, but they are still looking to push their priorities at the Capitol. By and large, those wish lists highlight freeing up more state financial resources for transportation and infrastructure projects, and having the state pass along higher percentages of tax revenue to cash-strapped communities.

But could those appeals fall on deaf ears? Not if the message is persistent, lobbyists say.

“It’s our job to make it clearer to lawmakers how the issues affect us locally,” said Lloyd Halverson, a lobbyist for Camas and Washougal.

Lobbying is old hat for Halverson, who made it one of his duties when he served as Camas city administrator from 1989 through 2012. This will be his first year officially lobbying for Washougal. His contract calls for him to be paid $105 an hour and no more than $7,000, from either city, for his work.

Camas and Washougal want more money for transportation projects, Halverson said. In Camas, those projects include making improvements to Brady Road. That project would come with a $4.8 million price tag, Halverson said.

They’d also like to see the West Camas Slough Bridge widened for safety. In 2011, a cement truck collided with three cars, killing one person.

Despite the truncated session, set to end in mid-March, Halverson said many of the issues would likely be addressed in future sessions. With a few deviations, this year’s agenda for small cities, prioritizing transportation projects and returning money to the state’s Public Works Trust Fund, is similar to what was emphasized during the last session.

In Battle Ground, the city’s lobbying efforts are more defensive-minded. While the city is throwing its support behind some of the priorities shared by other cities — receiving more money for transportation projects, for one — it’s also working to squash a bill.

The city opposes a Senate bill that would establish new voter-approval requirements before properties could be annexed into a taxing district.

It’s the second go-around for the bill, first introduced last session by Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

This session’s version of the bill added new language, which spells out specifically what area of the state the bill would affect — counties bordering the Columbia River with populations of more than 400,000 residents. In other words, it would only apply to Clark County.

A companion House bill sponsored by several members of Clark County’s delegation — Reps. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, and Paul Harris, R-Vancouver — was introduced this session.

The two bills stem from a long-simmering dispute between the city and a group of Brush Prairie residents, who are concerned the city has designs on annexing more land in an affluent neighborhood near the Cedars golf course. Battle Ground has argued there are safeguards in place to protect property owners from unwanted annexation.

“It’s not a good bill,” Battle Ground Mayor Shane Bowman said. “We already have policies in place that allow people to vote on annexation through the petition method.”

Another concern, Bowman said, is a proposed $12.3 billion transportation package, introduced last week by members of the Senate majority. The package was criticized for not including enough money — some $46 million, or 1 percent of the $6.5 billion directed toward the state’s road projects — for Clark County.

Transportation and infrastructure

Neither lawmakers nor lobbyists are optimistic the Senate’s transportation package will pass this session.

The plan calls for the state to raise gas taxes by 11.5 cents and shift money into a dedicated transportation fund.

“That has miles to go,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center. “When I look into my Magic 8-Ball, I see, ‘Not likely.'”

She said lawmakers shouldn’t rush a decision on what will amount to a 12-year package with a multibillion-dollar price tag. It wouldn’t be the first time lawmakers have pumped the brakes on such a proposal. Last year, legislators ultimately failed to reach an agreement on a transportation plan.

Alison Hellberg, a lobbyist with the Association of Washington Cities, said it’s common for cities to ask for more money to fix crumbling roads. Receiving that money is another story.

The state has roughly 18,000 lane miles of state highways, often running as thoroughfares through cities. The challenge has become keeping up with maintenance demands.

“As lane miles have been increasing, the amount of support from the state has gone down,” she said.

Constraints

Cities agree that one of their shared priorities this session is receiving assurance that lawmakers will return funding to the Public Works Trust Fund, which is used to make low-interest loans for building projects.

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, has worked on a bill that would help return some of the resources lost from the trust fund last year, when it was tapped to make payments toward K-12 education.

Pumping more state money into the education was among the Legislature’s top goals last year. But cities have balked at the notion that they could see a major source of low-interest loans disappear.

Other bills have also faltered under the financial constraints of the session.

Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, has introduced a number of bills focused on small communities. These include House Bill 2299, which would permit local governments to opt out of all prevailing wage requirements for projects valued at less than $5 million.

While the bill received the backing of Camas, Washougal and Battle Ground, it was not voted out of committee by the cut-off date.

Lawmakers say they’re incapable of meeting everyone’s needs.

Rivers, the La Center Republican, said the results of the session won’t please everyone, especially cities clamoring for more state assistance.

“They’d rather have money with no strings,” Rivers said, “but we’re feeling constrained at the state level, too.”