Legislative session mixed bag for Clark County

Officials express relief, frustration over what lawmakers did, didn't OK

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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The state Legislature's short session, which ended last week, is being described as a mixed bag for Clark County.

By the end of the session, several of the county's top legislative priorities had failed to reach a vote. Others passed, but it was clear: Clark County was left, somewhat expectedly, in legislative limbo until the next session.

"Overall, not a lot happened," said Axel Swanson, the county's senior policy analyst. "It was a short session, so it set us up for not a lot happening."

In fact, Swanson said, the session could be defined by what didn't happen. The state didn't place any costly mandates on the county, nor did it further strip away sources of revenue, including those generated by liquor sales.

And passage of a controversial $12.3 billion transportation package was delayed, giving the county hope that its future iteration would shore up more money for local projects. Swanson characterized those as positives.

Nonetheless, many county-backed bills did languish. They included one that would have allowed counties bordering states without a sales tax to collect a percentage of state-shared revenue, and a bill that would have overhauled the state's medical marijuana laws.

Swanson said the county was disappointed by the failures. But it was also pleased by what did pass.

That included House Bill 1360, extending the county's timeline to designate one or more industrial land banks. That's important, Swanson said, because the legislation was set to expire at the end of the year. In the county's case, it's looking at the 200-acre Lagler Dairy, south of Battle Ground, for that purpose. The county recently received a land-bank application from the dairy.

Without the bill, reviewing the application by the time the original legislation was set to expire would be extremely difficult, Swanson said.”

Political complications

Commissioner Steve Stuart, poised to step down from his elective position next month, was pointed with his remarks about why some of the bills fizzled: The actions of Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, killed them, Stuart said. Without naming names, he said a number of Olympia insiders told him a letter Benton sent chastising fellow Republicans for their votes on a Democratic-backed bill had doomed his own legislation.

"The bills were pawns in a game," Stuart, a Democrat, said.

He said he was frustrated that the letter became a distraction toward the end of the session.

Benton's letter, which lambasted 14 House Republicans for supporting a bill requiring new rules for signature-gatherers in the state's initiative process, certainly saw its share of criticism. Rep. Joel Kretz, the House Republicans' deputy leader, wrote a sarcastic response in which he listed the times Benton supported Democratic-backed bills.

Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, however, said he wasn't convinced Benton's letter doomed his legislation.

"If you asked people the day after the letter, there would have been some (frustration with it)," Vick said. "There were obviously some hard feelings initially."

He said a split House and Senate likely contributed more to bills stalling in committee.

Nothing lost, nothing gained

Mike Burgess, the county's lobbyist, said he was ultimately pleased with how the county fared during the session. Given the constraints of a Democratic-controlled House, with predominantly Republican control of the Senate, county-backed bills saw some success.

And some of the bills that didn't have the county's support failed.

"For Southwest Washington, the session was a net positive," Burgess said.

Occasionally, a bill's failure means nothing lost, nothing gained, and back to the drawing board for a stronger version. That was the case with the proposed transportation package, which stalled early on. Its failure was met by measured relief among county officials, who'd groused that it provided little support to Clark County.

In terms of other high points, Burgess pointed to legislation that would allow for better flexibility for paying for stormwater facilities. While that legislation stalled, the bill was tacked onto the supplemental transportation budget as an amendment.

Ultimately, that will be a short-term fix, Burgess said, and a long-term solution will have to be addressed legislatively within the next two years.

"We'll have to get that into law before it expires," Burgess said.

County-backed bills

Senate Bill 6076

• Local sponsor: Sen. Don Benton.

• What would it do: The bill would have granted counties greater flexibility in managing their “conservation futures land” by allowing them to use money that’s restricted to purchase more land and use that money on land maintenance.

• Did it pass? No. It passed the Senate but received no movement in the House.

Senate Bill 6116/Senate Bill 6117

• Local sponsor: Sen. Don Benton.

• What would it do: It would have changed the rate charges for the use of stormwater-control facilities.

• Did either pass? Kind of. Senate Bill 6116 was introduced Jan. 15 and referred to the Energy, Environment & Telecommunications committee. Senate Bill 6117, meanwhile, received a public hearing on Feb. 4. But the legislation was eventually revived and hung as an amendment to the supplemental transportation budget. This is considered a temporary fix, the county says.

House Bill 1360

• Local sponsor: Rep. Paul Harris.

• What would it do: Extends the deadline to designate one or more land banks. In Clark County, this would mean the county could fold the changes into its comprehensive plan, set to be updated in 2016.

• Did it pass? Yes. It passed the House on Feb. 12 and the Senate on March 7. It heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.

Senate Bill 5325/House Bill 1553

• Local sponsors: Sens. Don Benton, Annette Cleveland and Ann Rivers; Reps. Jim Moeller, Liz Pike, Ed Orcutt, Sharon Wylie, Paul Harris, Brandon Vick and Monica Stonier.

• What would it do: It would have allowed any county that borders a state without a sales tax to receive up to the .09 percent state-shared local sales and use tax for rural counties.

• Did either pass? No.

Other bills on the county’s watch list

Senate Bill 6470

• Local sponsor: Sen. Annette Cleveland.

• What would it do: It would require the county prosecuting attorneys to identify at least one designated medical professional to conduct child abuse medical assessment, and it would require the state to pay for the medical assessments of children with suspicious injuries.

• Did it pass? No.

Senate Bill 6125

• Local sponsor: Sen. Don Benton.

• What would it do: It would prohibit property from being taken for public or private use that would be transferred to a government agency of another state.

• Did it pass? No.