OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee has a message for Southwest Washington: The replacement of the Interstate 5 Bridge spanning the Columbia River will include light rail, or it won’t be built.
Speaking at a preview of the 2019 legislative session, which begins Monday, Inslee said that light rail will be a feature of the replacement bridge because Oregon will pay for half of the project and has insisted that it be included. Inslee said the situation might be different if Washington was paying for the entire project. But, he said, it “takes two to tango.”
“What I want to make clear, though, is that the Southwest Washington community needs to come together around a consensus,” said Inslee. “At the moment, unless Oregon changes its view, you’re going to have to put light rail on the bridge if you want a bridge.”
In December, Washington and Oregon lawmakers had their first public meeting to discuss replacing the century-old bridge since the last proposal for a new crossing was scuttled in 2013. Inslee included $17.5 million in his proposed budget for a bridge replacement project office that included the assumption light rail will be included.
While all but one member of Clark County’s Republican lawmakers support the bridge-replacement effort, they’ve voiced their support for bus rapid transit rather than light rail, which they’ve criticized as costly and inflexible. Last month, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, and seven Republican Southwest Washington state lawmakers wrote to Inslee expressing dismay over his move to include light rail and asked him to keep other options on the table.
“There is a ton of legislative support for a bridge that does have light rail, and I’m very clear about that,” said Inslee. He said that it was “tragic” that the Columbia River Crossing, the previous massive replacement bridge that included light rail, was killed by Republican lawmakers in 2013. He said the project’s demise cost Washington $156 million, a mistake he said he didn’t want to see repeated.
He said that while he’s open to a bridge that might have bus rapid transit, he said he preferred light rail because it would connect to Oregon’s network, which he called a “pretty sweet deal.” He also said it was “unfortunate” that light rail has been opposed by parties who don’t want “those people coming over here.”
Speaking after a press event, he said that “ghost of Don Benton,” a former Republican state senator who played a role in killing the last bridge, needed to go.
The preview event also included remarks from state legislative leaders about what’s next for education funding, reforms of the mental health system, taxes and how Inslee’s possible presidential ambitions could affect the session.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said that he was optimistic about the session because there was broad agreement on homelessness, mental health and tax fairness. He said that now that the Legislature had satisfied a court order to fully fund basic education it could look more “holistically at the education system” and work that’s needed to be done on early learning and higher education.
“We’ve been in a position in the past where we didn’t even agree on what the problems were and I think that is a step forward and that kind of gives me a basis of optimism,” he said.
Throughout the preview, legislative leaders from both parties voiced support for reforming the state’s mental health system, an issue that’s expected to dominate the session. They voiced support for putting counselors in schools, bolstering the ranks of mental health workers and revising the state’s civil commitment procedures in school. They were also supportive of plans to provide more treatment through community-based institutions rather than the troubled Western State Hospital. They also wanted all options on the table.
“One size does not fit all,” said Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, ranking Republican on the House Health Care and Wellness Committee.
The discussion did have some possibly good news for Clark County, which is considering what to do with its aging jail that’s ill-suited to serve people with behavioral or substance abuse problems.
“I think it’s completely unacceptable for our jails to be our mental health hospitals,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, a Redmond Democrat who will chair the Behavioral Health Subcommittee.
Both she and Sen. Keith Wagoner, the ranking Republican on the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee, said that they support programs and infrastructure to divert mentally ill people out of jails.
Wagoner mentioned a proposal being worked on Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, that would raise the state’s bonding capacity to pay for new facilities. However, Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said that while that may pay for more facilities it wouldn’t provide operational funding for them.
Capital gains tax
Wagoner said the governor’s budget had sugar and vinegar. He said that while he appreciated the $675 million to overhaul the mental health system, he criticized the capital gains tax used to pay for it.
Inslee said that the capital gains tax is needed to meet the state’s “constitutional and moral obligations.” He said that tax would only affect about 1.5 percent of people in Washington and would make the tax system fairer.
Dhingra said the tax is “absolutely” needed and added that the state’s current tax structure is the country’s most regressive. Billig also said that while no one wanted to raise taxes for the sake of raising taxes it would seem more palatable when it becomes clear what investments it would pay for while making the system fairer.
Throughout the event, Republicans expressed opposition to it.
“It’s an income tax, period,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
Inslee is eyeing a presidential bid and has trips scheduled to politically important states. Democrats shrugged off the idea that it would influence the governor’s actions during the session.
“I have no doubt that he and his staff and the agencies that he oversees are going to be able to carry out their duties in a very professional way regardless of what he is looking to do after his term as governor ends,” said Billig.
Schoesler was less charitable.
“Well, I think his policies may be geared more toward Iowa than Washington,” he said, referencing the state that holds the nation’s first primary. “That’s just a fact.”
He said regardless, it will be a good year for the lieutenant governor, who will get a salary increase while filling in for the governor while he’s traveling.