Southwest Washington’s state legislators told business leaders on Friday they’re glad to take the baton from Gov. Chris Gregoire for what’s sure to be an endurance run of budget-cutting in Olympia.
As for the Columbia River Crossing?
Lawmakers are still playing tug-of-war — or maybe hot potato — on that prickly debate.
It was a mixed message for an anxious crowd at the annual legislative breakfast sponsored by the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, Identity Clark County and the Columbia River Economic Development Council.
Nearly all nine state senators and representatives on hand hailed Gregoire’s new budget plan as a clear-eyed starting point for cold-blooded budget cuts needed to close a nearly $5 billion spending gap for 2011-13.
More important, they voiced hope the Legislature can replicate the bipartisan, no-nonsense approach in which it approved short-term budget cuts in a one-day special session last week.
“We chose to work within the reality of the day,” Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, told the Hilton Vancouver Washington assembly.
“There aren’t a lot of options out on the table other what the governor (proposed),” Zarelli said. “I hope legislators realize that, early on.”
Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, said he’s prepared for budget bloodletting to come, even if he fears many of his fellow Democrats aren’t. To succeed, they must ward off a “legion” of social service and other interest groups he expects to plea for less-harsh measures, he said.
“We can cry in private,” Pridemore said. “In public, we need to cut, and cut until we don’t have to cut any more.”
So much for the morning’s feel-good, Kumbuya portion.
On the business lobby’s other fondest wish for 2011 — getting the Columbia River Crossing project unstuck — lawmakers showed they’re nowhere near harmony.
“This is a generational project. Fifteen years (of planning and debate) is long enough. Let’s get it done,” Pridemore said to rousing applause.
“You go, boy! That’s music to our ears,” interjected Ginger Metcalf, Identity Clark County executive director.
In a pointed prologue, Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver said business leaders must fund a strong, united campaign to win the scheduled November C-Tran service area vote on whether to cover costs of operating light rail service to Clark County.
Like Pridemore, he said elements of the current bridge replacement plan such as tolling and light rail may dismay some, but compromise must carry the day.
“We need a campaign for this bridge, because there’s a campaign against it,” Moeller said. “You know who I’m talking about,” he said, naming Camas businessman David Madore’s NoTolls political action group.
“Let’s get it straight: No tolls, no bridge,” Moeller said, counter to notions floated by the “doubters, naysayers and, quite honestly, goofballs that somehow think freeways are free.”
The fall vote is critical to win federal dollar support, or the project flounders, he said.
“We have to pull together. If we close our wallets, if we sit on our butts and let (others carry the argument)… we will lose that election in November. And, we will lose that bridge for another generation,” he said.
Not so fast, a few Republicans countered moments later.
“At the risk of being called a ‘goofball,’ I don’t support the current plan,” said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama.
He insists on greater federal funding, rather than tolling, to foot construction. “After years of building ‘bridges to nowhere,’ why isn’t the federal government going to buck up and build a bridge to everywhere?” he said.
Worse yet, Orcutt said a replacement I-5 bridge won’t solve mounting congestion in the longer Vancouver-Portland corridor. He called instead for a third Columbia River bridge.
Zarelli seconded that bleak assessment.
“I’m not satisfied with the project as it now stands,” Zarelli said. “You’re getting one shot at that corridor (and) long-term, it doesn’t fix the corridor.”
Clark County’s incoming freshman legislators, both Republicans, also weighed in on the Columbia River Crossing.
Rep.-elect Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said he believes the bridge is needed. Rep.-elect Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said she’ll take her cue from the C-Tran light rail vote. She worries about unresolved congestion and possible Interstate 205 bridge tolls, she said.
“I’m anxious to see what the people of this community decide in November,” Rivers said.
Two other Democrats didn’t blink over the crossing issue.
“It creates 20,000 jobs. That’s the most important part, for me,” said 17th District Rep. Tim Probst of east Vancouver.
Vancouver Rep. Jim Jacks said 47 of 50 businesses he polled on a listening tour said they “desperately” want the project, citing frustration and dollars lost in current delays.
‘I’m fine paying a $3 toll for a (reliable) 15-minute trip,’ ” Jacks said one businessman told him.
To the Friday audience, Jacks said “I was ready to start with my shovel three years ago.”
It will take plenty of digging in the months ahead to stem the state’s red ink and try to boost Washington’s sour economy.
Legislators offered pithy words of advice, or patience, for the scheduled 105-day session that convenes Jan. 10.
“It’s not about what we should cut; it’s about what we should fund,” Zarelli said, urging a reordering of state priorities.
Orcutt again pressed for Gregoire to suspend regulatory agency rule-making to give business a badly needed break.
“The best thing we can do (to stimulate jobs) is get out of the way,” he said.
Pridemore poured cold water on hopes the state’s revenue picture may brighten soon. He, Zarelli and Orcutt, who all serve on the Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, have been warned that less-dire projections are “still soft,” he said.
Lawmakers need to be “frank, rather than ideological” on daunting choices whether to eliminate state programs, Pridemore said. He knocked Gregoire’s pitch to mothball some programs in hopes of later revival.
“We shouldn’t just suspend programs, we should eliminate and cut them,” he said. Otherwise, the next budget cycle also arrives deep in the red, he said, adding “I don’t want to do this again in 2013.”
Moeller and Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, the lone 15th district legislator to appear Friday, cautioned that partisanship still plays a vital role in drawing out open debate. They expect final compromise will not come easily, or swiftly, next spring.
Still, most panelists agreed that scarce resources do tend to diminish partisan bickering.
“Impending doom tends to bring people together,” Chandler said.