Two members of Clark County’s legislative delegation say there is consensus among its members that the Interstate 5 Bridge needs to be replaced.
Rep. Brandon Vick and Rep. Larry Hoff, both Vancouver Republicans, met with The Columbian’s editorial board last week to recap the 2019 legislative session.
Vick said there is consensus among county legislators to step back and see where there is agreement on the bridge. If light rail is a sticking point, then take it off the table for now, he said.
“There are a variety of different opinions out there,” Hoff added. “The good news is they are starting to center on an I-5 solution, an I-5 Bridge solution.”
State lawmakers approved a two-year transportation bill this year that provided $35 million toward replacing the aging bridge. Half will go to opening and operating an I-5 Bridge project office, with the rest devoted to pre-design and planning.
Vick said funding an I-5 Bridge office “gives us the first real legislative step forward,” adding that the local delegation also supports planning for a third Columbia River bridge at some future point.
“I think the short answer is what we could have expected to get done this year, we got it done,” he said.
Vick said he and Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, have met with Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Portland Democrat. Vick said Kotek will appoint members to a bi-state bridge commission.
“We are trying to work with the Oregon Senate to get their members appointed,” he said.
Hoff said there is more work to be done, especially with Oregon.
“Everybody stuck on I-5 at 4 o’clock, they don’t really understand how this whole thing will happen, how Oregon has to come to the table,” he said.
Hoff also will be looking to the nation’s capital for assistance.
“This is a federal transportation concern and one our folks in D.C. need to start paying a little more attention to,” he said.
House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, joined the two local legislators for part of last week’s discussion.
“There is no one more collaborative in Olympia than Brandon (Vick),” Wilcox said. “The cast of characters, I think, is set up to work better than it has in the past.”
Six years ago, the Washington Senate, which was then controlled by Republicans, balked at providing funding for the Columbia River Crossing, causing the project to shut down after years of planning, design and community outreach. Former Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, played a key role in killing it.
“At some point, we are going to have to pay for it,” Vick said. “As far as the importance (of the project), I think we have that sold — until the next election.”
Budgets and taxes
Lawmakers were decidedly less upbeat on other issues, including eliminating the sales tax exemption for Oregon shoppers at Clark County businesses.
Beginning July 1, that exemption will be eliminated. Come 2020, Oregon residents and others who are eligible will need to submit an annual application to the Washington Department of Revenue for reimbursement of paid state sales taxes totaling $25 or more. Only one application per calendar year will be allowed.
Some business owners are concerned that eliminating the sales tax exemption will take a big bite out of their revenues. Hoff said the state hopes to reap $54 million in new taxes by eliminating the exemption, but he suspects it will simply drive away business, not drive up sales tax collections.
“I just don’t see that happening,” he said about the $54 million.
Vick said he and others will fight to reinstate the sales tax exemption.
“We are going to count on 2020 helping us out a little bit, too,” he said, referring to the next general election.
The two local legislators were critical of tax increases passed during the recent session. Democrats currently hold a 57-41 advantage in the House.
“We found out we were going to have close to $3 billion extra to spend,” Vick said. “The Legislature, without a lot of support from us (Republicans), decided to spend $7 billion.”
Vick said lawmakers increased the business and occupation tax to help pay for college for families earning less than $50,000, but predicted that tuition break will be one of the first items on the chopping block during an inevitable economic downturn.