Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, recalled meeting with federal transportation officials to discuss renewed efforts to replace the century-old Interstate 5 Bridge across the Columbia River.
Since the demise of the Columbia River Crossing, the previous replacement project in 2013, both Oregon and Washington have faced the prospect of having to repay nearly $150 million to the federal government in September if they couldn’t demonstrate progress on replacing the antiquated bridge. Cleveland recalled asking in the meeting about the prospect of having to repay federal funds.
“The response was: ‘We don’t know; that’s never happened before,'” said Cleveland.
After Washington Legislature adjourned its 105-day session Sunday night, Cleveland is more confident the two states won’t be on the hook to repay the feds after she secured $35 million in the state’s two-year transportation budget toward replacing the bridge.
During the session, lawmakers also approved funding for a revamp of the state’s dysfunctional mental health system, as well as legislation changing how local jurisdictions collect taxes that are expected to give some residents a break. While elected officials say Clark County fared relatively well this session, Republican legislators weren’t pleased with additional taxes used to pay for it.
“There were just multiple taxes that we simply didn’t need,” said Rep. Larry Hoff, R-Vancouver. “If we would have tightened our belt a little, all the good programs would have been funded.”
I-5 Bridge replacement
Days before the Legislature was scheduled to adjourn, both the House and Senate versions of the state’s two-year transportation budget contained over $8 million for a project office to replace the I-5 Bridge. By the time the Legislature adjourned on Sunday night, the total amount dedicated to replacing the bridge ballooned to $35 million.
According to a press release from Cleveland’s office, half of the $35 million will go to opening and operating the I-5 Bridge office; the rest will fund the future predesign and planning of the bridge.
“I felt very strongly that we owe it to our partners, particularly the state of Oregon, to demonstrate our commitment to working with them on a new I-5 Bridge,” Cleveland told The Columbian. “Given the past history and the fact that Oregon has been clear that they need to see a strong financial commitment, this was something that I needed to go to the mat on.”
In a statement, Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle thanked Cleveland and the Southwest Washington delegation for their work on replacing the bridge, which she called “critical to meeting the region’s transportation and economic development needs over the next 100 years and beyond.”
Cleveland said that the additional funding for the bridge was generated by a tax hike under the Model Toxics Control Act, Washington’s environmental cleanup law. Cleveland said that with Democrats in full control of the Legislature for the first budget-writing process in years, she felt a responsibility to push for funding.
Although the Legislature didn’t advance a separate package of bills that would have designated $450 million for the bridge replacement, lawmakers passed a bill intended to expedite the project.
The governors of Washington and Oregon have stated they want to see the bridge replaced, and last year lawmakers from both states had their first public meeting to discuss the project in years. As for next steps, Cleveland said she’ll travel to Salem, Ore., later this week to discuss with Oregon officials.
Clark County will see other projects funded through the state’s operating, transportation and capital budgets.
While the operating budget funds agencies and departments across state government, it included $3.5 million to Clark County Public Health. It also included $149,000 for a job-training pilot program and $250,000 for “a licensed youth residential psychiatric substance abuse and mental health agency.”
In the final transportation budget, Clark County will see a total of $590 million for improvements to state Highway 14 and other thoroughfares, as well as trails, overpasses, transit and other projects. In the budget, C-Tran will get $4.9 million for a project to allow buses to use the southbound I-5 shoulder from the 99th Street Transit Center. In an email, Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, noted $1.5 million for the rehabilitation of the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad.
The capital budget included $29 million for projects in Clark County, including maintenance and repairs to schools, historic preservation, conservation projects and others. Wilson highlighted $2 million for the Wisdom Business Park in Ridgefield included in the capital budget.
Of the more notable appropriations is $277,000 for the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab in Vancouver to help process the state’s backlog of sexual assault kits, as well as $1.7 million for the proposed Tenny Creek assisted-living facility. The new facility will be run by the Vancouver Housing Authority as part of the Legislature’s efforts to create more community-based options for people suffering from behavioral health and substance abuse challenges.
“One of the things that I don’t think has happened to this degree before is the harmonization between our capital expenses and our operating expenses,” said Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver.
The state operating budget will contain about $22 million for Western State Hospital, the state’s largest psychiatric facility, which has seen a steady stream of troubling headlines over staff and patients conditions. The budget also contains $47 million to create a network of regional behavioral health facilities intended to reduce reliance on facilities like Western State Hospital.
Wylie said that these investments will prevent the “warehousing” of mentally ill people and should have happened decades ago.
Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said that the Legislature’s work on mental health will be ongoing. He mentioned the high rate of teen suicide and the need to integrate mental health into local facilities.
While Democrats dropped their capital gains tax proposal, they did pursue other changes in the tax code to fund the budget.
During the session both Hoff and Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, sent out press releases criticizing the tax increases.
“Everyday, we’d wake up to a new tax proposal that was cooked up the night before,” said Hoff.
In particular, he took issue with an increase in the business and occupation tax, which is assessed on financial services and other businesses with highly educated workforces.
“Nobody likes raising taxes,” responded Wylie. “Every single tax vote is troublesome, and I know that I’m going to be heavily criticized.”
But she said the vote to increase the business and occupation tax was a difficult vote and she supported it because it would result in the “biggest and smartest investment in our state’s history.” The revenue will be used to create the Washington College Grant that makes public college tuition-free for families earning less than $50,000 and expands job-training programs.
Wylie also called attention to a change in the real estate excise tax from a flat tax to one that’s calculated on the selling price of a home. The change is intended to make the state’s tax system less regressive while generating more revenue. “Most people will get a reduction when they sell their home rather than an increase,” said Wylie.
The change could also generate more revenue for Clark County. In an email, Clark County Treasurer Alishia Topper said that based on a 2018 analysis of sales, the new rate could generate about $100,000 for the county general fund. However, Topper said that the estimate is likely too high because multiple properties can be included in a single sale and 2018 numbers reflect a particularly strong economy and housing market.
Lawmakers also made changes to the tax code to allow local jurisdictions to enact a local sales tax for affordable housing. But during Monday’s Clark County Council legislative conference call, Lindsey Shafar, senior legislative analyst, said that the bill is particularly complicated and won’t be straightforward to implement.
Additionally, the Legislature expanded the property tax exemption for low-income seniors, the disabled and veterans. Clark County Assessor Peter Van Nortwick said that he supported the bill. But he said he’s not sure how many households will be added the 6,000 that currently qualify in Clark County because the new eligibility will be calculated later this year based on median household income.