Lawmakers see progress, more work yet to be done

State representatives see infrastructure, talks with Oregon officials as critical areas of need

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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The Washington Legislature made strides in fully funding basic education, but work remains to be done with other issues, particularly with infrastructure and the state’s relationship with its neighbor to the south.

Those were some key themes that ran through The Columbian Editorial Board’s interview on Monday with Brandon Vick, Vicki Kraft and Paul Harris, the three Republicans representing Clark County in the Washington State House of Representatives. (Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, was invited but did not attend.)

Before concluding their third special session last month, lawmakers passed a landmark legislative package intended to satisfy the McCleary decision, a state Supreme Court decision that directed the Legislature to meet its constitutional responsibility to fully fund basic education. The package will direct an additional $6.6 billion to schools statewide over the next four years. A key source of new funding comes from a so-called levy swap that’s projected to increase the state schools levy to $2.70 per thousand dollars in assessed property values.

“McCleary has been decided and a solution is in place,” said Kraft. She said she is confident the decision will meet the court’s mandate and will equitably fund basic education. Vick added that he didn’t think the court could say “with a straight face” that the Legislature didn’t accomplish what it needed to.

When it comes to funding, Harris said that the new funding structure will be “iffy” at first, as property taxes are expected to rise in 2018 before local levy rates are capped in 2019. After that, he said, property taxes will “go down significantly for about four or five years.”

Harris, who sat on the task force that negotiated the deal, said that the solution should be a long-term fix for McCleary, which the court will rule on this fall. However, he said that the package, which was passed at the last minute to avoid a government shutdown, could have been done earlier — and likened the process to high schoolers studying for exams.

He also said he’s concerned about how the Legislature was unable to pass a capital budget, which contained $4 billion for projects across the state, after Senate Republicans demanded a remedy to the Hirst decision, a Supreme Court decision that’s stalled rural development.

“The one holdup is, we have a billion dollars sitting in the capital budget that goes to new school construction, and without that, honestly, I haven’t met my McCleary obligation,” said Harris. He added that the court could still make “life really tough” for lawmakers, who he said could be called back for another special session to fix the Hirst decision and pass a capital budget.

Bistate cooperation

During the interview, Vick and Kraft expressed frustration that legislators couldn’t come to an agreement on Hirst.

“The easy talking point on this is, why should we let the government build a park or community center when the neighbor to that park or community center can’t build a house?” said Vick.

The three lawmakers also discussed the potential for better relationships between Oregon and Washington.

“I don’t know how (Oregon legislators) are viewing us, and really building those relationships is important.” said Kraft, who noted that she’s already begun reaching out to her counterparts in Oregon.

During the session, the Washington Legislature passed a bill intended to jump-start the process to replace the chronically congested Interstate 5 Bridge and create a legislative action committee made up of key stakeholders and Department of Transportation employees in Oregon and Washington.

“I think right now it’s more about relationships and less about blueprints, or even funding, for that matter,” said Vick.

When asked about how Oregon has asked federal authorities to begin tolling the I-5 and Interstate 205 bridges, which would affect Clark County commuters, Vick said that local lawmakers had no legislative remedy but could be advocates and “make a stink” about the proposal. However, the three lawmakers agreed that having a better relationship will help the two sides talk through these issues and develop solutions for transportation problems.

“We better become friendly with them,” said Harris. “We better start having a dialogue with them and start working these things out.”