Local legislators have different perspectives on Initiative 976, ranging from accepting the Nov. 5 statewide vote for $30 car tabs to taking a cautious approach during legal challenges to the measure’s constitutionality.
I-976 was one of the topics for the 2020 Legislature discussed Friday during the annual 2020 Legislative Outlook Breakfast at WareHouse ’23.
“Right now, we have an initiative that has passed that is going to hurt everyone in the entire state,” Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said. “There is no easy answer. We won’t know what the courts will do for about a year, so we are trying to very cautious.”
“But we would be sabotaging our future if we did what we did years ago, which is to just say, ‘The people voted for this, and we’re going to do what the people want,’ ” she said. “If we do that, we are sabotaging our economic future.”
“The impacts of passing of I-976 to communities all across the state will be dire,” agreed Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver.
Cleveland said the key to sustained economic development and continued job growth is infrastructure.
“When we no longer invest in that very critical infrastructure, we are only harming ourselves and our future,” she said. “We all know in this room there is no pot of money hiding in the closet.”
Rep. Larry Hoff, R-Vancouver, took issue with any suggestion that lawmakers should ignore voters.
“I’m not fully aware of all the funding mechanisms that might be in danger of being put on a diet or where we could find the additional funds,” Hoff said. “But the pot of gold that Sen. Cleveland talks about may be in the fact we just need to tighten our belts a little bit.”
“At some point in time,” he added, “you folks are the ones who tell us what to do.”
Seven of the nine lawmakers from the 17th, 18th and 49th legislative districts attended Friday’s breakfast. Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, had other commitments.
35 of 39 counties
I-976 received 53 percent of the statewide vote and passed in 35 of Washington’s 39 counties, with only Jefferson, King, Thurston and Whatcom counties opposing it. Here in Clark County, 61 percent of voters backed the measure.
The measure, promoted by anti-tax activist Tim Eyman, caps vehicle licensing fees at $30 and eliminates additional licensing fees collected by 61 cities in Washington, including Battle Ground, Ridgefield, Vancouver and Washougal.
According to the Washington Office of Financial Management, I-976 will eliminate $2.32 billion in revenue for local governments and $1.92 billion for the state over six years.
The initiative is being challenged by Seattle, King County and other plaintiffs.
On Nov. 27, King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson blocked I-976 from taking effect because of “substantial concerns” that its ballot description was misleading. Ferguson also indicated that plaintiffs were likely to prevail in their challenge.
Gov. Jay Inslee told the News Tribune in Tacoma that he will not ask lawmakers to approve $30 car tabs and wants to wait for the legal challenge to conclude.
None of the seven legislators present for Friday’s breakfast specifically embraced locking $30 car tabs into state law during the upcoming 60-day session.
Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, mentioned that Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, proposes to use sales taxes collected on vehicle sales to help fund transportation projects.
Hoff said he believes any response to I-976 should not raise taxes.
“The term stop gap funding sometimes alludes to more taxes,” he said. “I think it’s important that we find some funding vehicles, but I think we can find those from the expense side of our ledger as opposed to the revenue side.”
Wylie said, as first vice chair of the House Transportation Committee, trying to “protect our economic future” will be her top priority.
“All the final decisions on that are going to be in suspended animation for at least a year,” she said, referring to court challenges. “That is probably the most demanding part of my work right now.”
Legislative Outlook Breakfast Highlights
Friday’s breakfast focused on business priorities, as developed by the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, Columbia River Economic Development Council and Identity Clark County, and related issues.
• Construction requests: Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, said she supports budget requests for Clark College’s Boschma Farms project in Ridgefield, Washington State University Vancouver’s Life Sciences Building and Cascadia Tech Academy.
“One of the biggest priorities for our region is economic development,” Kraft said. “That helps all of you in this room, that helps our future generations.”
• Minimum wage: Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, said the state’s minimum wage will increase to $13.50 in 2020.
“I’ve had a whole lot of businesses come to me and say, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ because it’s going to be laying off people or shutting down the business,” she said.
• Interstate 5 Bridge: Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said her top focus will continue to be replacing the I-5 Bridge.
“We have been working hard for the last four years,” she said. “And this year, we saw tremendous progress. We have taken some huge steps forward.”
Cleveland said there was a transportation revenue package that was introduced during the 2019 session.
“While it did not pass the Legislature this year, there is a line item in that package for replacement of the I-5 Bridge,” she said.
• Homeless: Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said he will work on issues involving the homeless population, including mental health and substance abuse issues.
“I appreciate what our city council and our county are doing on these issues,” he said. “These are very complex and difficult issues, and I hope to work with them and make a difference in our community. It’s something we need to really look at.”
Harris said he met with Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle to discuss the Navigation Center, a day facility for the homeless population that has been widely criticized. He also mentioned the need for more affordable housing.
“I think we are moving in the right direction,” he said. “It’s just going to take some more dollars and some more housing.”
Cleveland said the 2019 Legislature added $175 million in affordable housing loans and grants, provided property tax breaks for seniors and veterans on limited incomes, and gave cities and counties more ability to use real estate excise taxes for affordable housing.
• Snake River dams: Rep. Larry Hoff, R-Vancouver, said he opposes breaching the four dams.
Environmentalists say the dams create physical barriers for migrating salmon and steelhead. Reservoirs behind the dams are quick to warm during summer weather, depriving fish of the cold water they need.
Hoff offered a different perspective.
“I had the opportunity to spend some time over on the Snake River in Eastern Washington,” he said. “I saw how the dams are really adding to the economy over there.”
Wilson said there is $20 billion of economic activity associated with four dams.
“By the way, this is a federal issue,” she said. “So we really don’t have much say in what will happen, but we will encourage them not to do that.”
• Education funding: Kraft said that since 2107, $10 billion has been put into education, specifically kindergarten through 12th grade, adding that 52 percent of the state’s budget goes to K-12.
The best way to raise more money for education is to create a business-friendly environment and promote economic development, she said.
“If we make it easier for businesses to come, the revenue will come naturally,” Kraft said.
Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said lawmakers accomplished a lot during this year’s session. If more money is available for education, it should go to early childhood programs “where we know we get the biggest bang for our investment.”
Stonier also said only so much can get done during a 60-day session.
“That is about fine tuning and not introducing a lot of new concepts,” she said. “Historically, that is what we say into microphones at outlook breakfasts. But I do think our time is limited. And we accomplished so much last (session) that there is room for reflection.”