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News / Clark County News

Local lawmakers used their influence this year

By Kathie Durbin
Published: May 1, 2011, 12:00am

A spring slog in Olympia

Clark County has lost some clout and gained some clout in Olympia over the past five years.

This year, several local legislators who have carved out policy niches wielded increased influence as the Legislature grappled with the biggest state budget crisis in recent history.

Three newcomers are learning the ropes in a session that amounts to trial by fire. The newest is Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, who was appointed in April to fill a vacancy in the 49th District.

Sens. Joe Zarelli and Craig Pridemore and Rep. Ed Orcutt wield influence on the budget as members of their respective Ways and Means committees. Orcutt, R-Kalama, also chairs the Revenue Forecast Council, which gets regular reports on the state’s revenue outlook. Zarelli is a member.

Zarelli won kudos during the regular session for working across party lines with Senate Ways and Means Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, to propose a balanced budget. But the Ridgefield Republican, a fiscal conservative and budget policy wonk, hasn’t softened his view that the state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. He notes that the Senate budget “doesn’t spend more than we have coming in” for the first time since 1997.

Pridemore, D-Vancouver, gives Zarelli credit. “Assuming we stay the course, we’ll pass the most sustainable budget in over a decade,” he said.

Pridemore, a former Clark County commissioner, chairs the Government Operations and Elections Committee this year. He’s proudest of a bill he sponsored that reforms public disclosure laws to prohibit campaign money laundering by political action committees. Gov. Chris Gregoire has signed the bill into law.

“Elimination of the 2012 presidential primary was a big deal” in his committee, he added, “We also moved the primary another two weeks earlier to comply with federal law and made it legal for overseas voters to vote electronically.“

The bill that emerged from his committee that could have the most impact in Clark County delays a number of state mandates for local governments. “It will save or postpone a lot of costs for cities and counties,” Pridemore said.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, made headlines this year when he pushed Clark County commissioners to hold an election on whether to build a new Columbia River Crossing. The commission declined.

Benton got his biggest publicity when he held up a vote on an $8.9 billion Senate transportation bill after trying to attach an amendment aimed at preventing illegal immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses.

On the House side, state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, has had a busy session, presiding over floor sessions as speaker pro tempore and sitting on the Transportation, Rules, Health Care and Wellness, Labor and Workforce Development and Capital Budget committees.

He succeeded in getting $37 million included in the 2011-13 House Transportation budget for the Columbia River Crossing and continued his legislative campaign to win greater protections for vulnerable adults.

A strong friend of labor, Moeller favors eliminating tax exemptions for businesses and restoring cuts in education and social services programs.

Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, is the delegation’s Mr. Education. Serving his second term, he is on both the education policy and education appropriations committees. In this session, he has promoted bills to reward high schools that reduce their dropout rates, help students make the transition from school to work, and create new certificates in math education for elementary schoolteachers.

Probst also is working with Boeing and Microsoft on a measure that would match corporate money with state money to help defray rising college tuition costs for Washington students.

Orcutt, a professional forester, is the delegation’s specialist on natural resources and an advocate for streamlining state natural resource agencies. He’s been highly critical of the 2011 Legislature for failing to pass a budget on time.

“The supplemental budget passed by the Legislature early on in session didn’t even close the budget gap between now and June 30 of this year,” he said in a recent newsletter to constituents. ‘It was a partial solution to a serious problem and it only made the budget hole for the next biennium worse.”

Freshman Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said he is proudest of a bill he introduced that would streamline the reporting process for utilities that are required to report on their use of renewable energy. The bill, which passed the House 91-6 but stalled in the Senate, “would eventually lead to lower costs for consumers, both corporate and residential,” he said.

His biggest disappointment, Harris said, was the failure of a workers’ compensation overhaul to pass in the regular session. “We have missed out on a tremendous opportunity to assist employers,” Harris said. “The bill received strong bipartisan support in the Senate, the governor was on board and we had the votes in the House. I want to know where the legislators from across the aisle who serve Clark County have been in this debate.”

A former Evergreen school board member, Harris also paid close attention to how education fared in the House budget process.

“I am pleased we didn’t have to get into the levy equalization debate, and I would hope that isn’t on the table for the special session either,” he said. “However, the House Democrat budget makes about $1.3 billion in cuts or reductions to K-12 schools. The House Republican budget was the kindest to education of those proposals we have seen and I would like to see more of those reforms implemented in the final budget during the special session. No more retroactive cuts or pushing K-4 apportionment payments into the next biennium.”

Ann Rivers, R-La Center, a former political consultant and lobbyist, prime-sponsored three bills in her first session, two of which have been signed by the governor. She attributed her success to knowing “the value of relationships” and her willingness to work across party lines.

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She’s proudest of a bill that will provide continuing education for pharmacy assistants and let them take over some of the duties of licensed pharmacists. That will help alleviate future shortages of pharmacists and other medical professionals when national health reform takes effect, she said.

“Health care is not one of my committees, but it is something I’m really interested in,” Rivers said. “Everybody in the state is going to be impacted.”

Rivers’ greatest disappointment is that the House Democratic majority didn’t consider a Republican budget introduced on the House floor before passing its own.

“We had a set of principles we worked on when we were defining our budget: It should be sustainable, no use of one-time money for ongoing programs, transparency,” she said. “When Rep. (Gary) Alexander came out with his budget, my single largest disappointment is that I don’t feel like they even read his document. He did a lot of hard work, he had buy-in from all of us, and they just sort of put it in a corner where it collected dust.”

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523; kathie.durbin@columbian.com.