Southwest Washington business community leaders held their annual Legislative Review on Friday, quizzing lawmakers from the 17th, 18th and 49th districts about their work during this year’s session and their biggest priorities going forward.
The COVID-19 pandemic loomed large over the discussion, both in terms of the priorities outlined by the speakers and the format of the event itself — the normally in-person Q&A was held remotely for the second year in a row, using an online software platform to place visitors at virtual “table” chatrooms in a simulated conference hall.
Transportation infrastructure was a major focus, due to Washington Democrats’ near-miss at getting a 16-year transportation package passed in session and the Biden administration’s ongoing effort to pitch a $2-trillion federal infrastructure package to Congress. The effort to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge took center stage in that discussion.
Columbia River Economic Development Council president Jennifer Baker began by outlining the business community’s top legislative priorities for 2021: fast and equitable distribution of COVID-19 relief, support for the I-5 Bridge replacement and funding for local jobs and economic development.
Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce president John McDonagh then took over to quiz the members of Southwest Washington’s congressional delegation about their work in the session and their own priorities.
Offering an overview from the Senate Democratic caucus, Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, recounted the many challenges the state faced heading into 2021 such as the pandemic, wildfires, large-scale unemployment, struggling small businesses and racial injustice.
She said the party approached the session with the goal of taking significant action to achieve long-term improvements rather than only restoring the status quo, citing the passage of big pieces of legislation including two pandemic relief bills.
Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, offering the Senate Republican caucus perspective, touted more funding for forest health, more support for people with disabilities and the Working Families Tax Credit. But she also criticized new taxes and fees introduced through Democrat-led legislation, particularly the new 7 percent capital gains tax, arguing that they were unnecessary at a time when the state already had higher-than-expected revenue.
Rep. Larry Hoff, R-Vancouver, praised the passage of an unemployment insurance relief bill and a paid family leave program.
McDonagh also asked about the possibility of calling a special session later this year to pass a finalized version of the 16-year transportation bill. Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said she didn’t think a special session would be necessary because negotiations toward a final package are still continuing in the interim.
She said lawmakers should focus on having the state package ready to go if and when the proposed federal package passes.
“Calling a special session for an agreement that isn’t baked yet doesn’t make sense to me,” she said.
Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, countered that a special session should be called for the purpose of voting to override Gov. Jay Inslee’s line-item veto of portions of two climate bills, which has drawn criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The vetoed portions tied the policies to the passage of the big transportation funding package.
Vick said the bills in question were passed on partisan votes but that the particular provisions Inslee overrode were safeguards that had been put in as a compromise aimed at making the measures more bipartisan, and that retaining them would be important to maintain trust between members as lawmakers continue negotiating the transportation package.
Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, highlighted the passage of the $6.3 billion capital budget, which she noted included funding for several prominent Southwest Washington projects and programs that the business community had included on its priorities list — the Washington State University Vancouver Life Sciences Building, Cascadia Tech Academy, Clark College at Boschma Farms and funding for part of the Port of Vancouver’s Terminal 1 redevelopment project.
The panel of lawmakers also discussed the status of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program and the state’s readiness to accept federal funding for the project if it ends up finding its way into the Biden infrastructure package. Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, said she was confident the state could find a way to process an unexpected infusion of federal funding.
“I’m certain that if (the federal government) were going to fund a bridge for us, we would find a way to do it,” she said. “It would work, but it wouldn’t be as the Legislature would do it normally.”
Rivers agreed, but she also said the state has encountered situations when federal funding suddenly became available and the state wasn’t prepared to make specific requests, so she said she wanted to work with Washington’s federal delegation to emphasize the need for regional funding for the I-5 Bridge and other transportation projects, in order to help those projects stand a better chance of landing federal dollars.