Whether to cut expenses, raise revenue or enact some combination of the two: That was the main point of debate among the three candidates looking to represent Washington’s 18th Legislative District in the Senate, as the state stares down the barrel of a $8.8 billion budget shortfall over the next three years.
In a meeting with The Columbian’s Editorial Board on Wednesday, the conversation between candidates grew occasionally heated, with barbs thrown by Republican candidate John Ley that were occasionally returned by the incumbent, Republican Sen. Ann Rivers.
“It’s been a spirited discussion,” Rick Bell, the Democrat and third candidate seeking the seat, joked during his closing remarks.
The COVID-19 pandemic has gutted the state’s economy, eliminating sources of taxable revenue and straining public programs. Rivers said the federal resources coming into the state are being spent at the discretion of the governor’s office, and the Legislature badly needs to meet for a special session to weigh in.
Rivers was also critical of Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget priorities and pointed to former Gov. Christine Gregoire’s handling of the Great Recession as a model to strive for when navigating a shortfall.
“We can do it with cutting spending. If we took the action that Gov. Gregoire took, where she declared an economic crisis and said we had to put off the increases to state employee pay, then we can get ourselves out of this,” Rivers said.
“I don’t support a proposed income tax, I don’t support a proposed capital gains income tax,” Rivers added. “Those are as regressive as every other tax.”
On that point, she and Ley were in agreement.
Ley said he’s categorically opposed to raising any existing taxes or creating additional ones, comparing the solution to balancing the state’s budget with that of any household that finds itself financially underwater; lawmakers should look to cut expenses, Ley said, not raise revenue.
“We’ve got to live within our means. That’s what citizens do in their own lives. That’s what they demand, I believe. And bottom line is, I would never spend my entire rainy day fund or my life savings all in one shot,” Ley said. “The people can not afford tax increases.”
Bell, who said he’d prioritize defending social services, pointed out that deep slashes to social programs could cause institutional damage that’s ultimately more expensive to the state. He said lawmakers ought to be thinking like “entrepreneurs,” looking for ways to run those programs more efficiently.
But big businesses, he added, will survive the pandemic. It’s individuals that the government should be concerned with helping, Bell said.
“There’s going to be a fight, and I know where my priorities are. I will always put people first,” Bell said. “If we recklessly cut into social services and programs that help people, that could have lasting and deeper social impacts that are more costly in the long run either way.”
Back and forth on the bridge
When the Columbia River Crossing project fell through in 2013 — after an eight-year, $200 million planning investment — it was for a few reasons, Rivers said. The Columbia River Crossing was supposed to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, which is seismically unstable.
She chalked up the failure to poor communication among lawmakers, an inequitable split of the financial burden between Oregon and Washington, and the sheer number of issues that were piggybacking on the project. Any attempt to rebuild the bridge will have to grapple with those same problems, Rivers said.
“I think what needs to be different is that it can’t be a Christmas tree project,” Rivers said. “That just didn’t seem fair to me. What I’m looking for is a fair project that really addresses the needs we have in terms of congestion reduction.”
Ley, who in 2013 was an active critic of the Columbia River Crossing project, opposes doing anything more than seismically reinforcing the existing bridge. Apart from that, he said, lawmakers should be laser-focused on increasing traffic capacity, by adding lanes to Portland’s Rose Quarter and by building additional bridges across the Columbia River.
“The CRC was nothing more than a light rail project in search of a bridge,” Ley said.
“Oregon does not respect the people of Southwest Washington,” he added. “They’re just looking for excuses to pick the pockets of our citizens.”
The candidates differed in their approach to tolling. Bell said he’s skeptical of tolls, expressing concerns that the money collected won’t actually go toward road maintenance.
Ley is staunchly against using tolls to fund a bridge. He suggested using revenues collected with the existing gas tax.
Rivers said she’s had a change of heart surrounding tolls and that they were an example of a “bedrock conservative value” — a user fee, paid by those who use the service that’s created the expense, and not paid by those who don’t.
“There’s no magic pot of money coming from the feds,” she said, addressing Ley. Acting like the state could just rely on the gas tax, she added, “is at best duplicitous, and I think it’s really misleading.”
The candidates also touched on climate change and policing reform.
Rivers, Ley and Bell will appear on the primary ballot on Aug. 4, and the top two will advance to the general election on Nov. 3. The vote is limited to those who live in the 18th Legislative District, which encompasses east Vancouver, Camas, Battle Ground, Ridgefield and the rural unincorporated areas in north Clark County.