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Washington legislature

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of stories we will publish over the next two weeks highlighting local issues of importance that could arise in the 105-day legislative session, which starts Jan. 14.

Delays encountered during a prominent Kelso street project could have statewide consequences for the way cities hire contractors.

Kelso’s recent South Pacific Avenue repaving effort through downtown dragged on a month longer than expected, to the frustration of neighboring businesses and residents. City officials say the delays were partially caused by the contractors’ inexperience.

Community Development Director Michael Kardas this week said if the city had been legally able to accept the second lowest bid, which was a scant 1 percent ($8,000) more than the lowest bid, the $1.2 million project would likely have been completed on time and with fewer problems.

The frustrations have prompted the city to ask local legislators to amend state law to allow cities to accept bids from contractors that come within 3 percent of the lowest bidder. Instead of being legally obligated to accept the lowest bid, cities across the state could take past experiences into account before awarding a contract.

This is just one of the local issues that will compete for lawmakers’ attention during the 105-day legislative session. Southwest Washington legislators who represent the 19th and 20th districts will have multiple other policy proposals to ponder this year, including changes to school bond supermajority thresholds, allocations for tourism dollars and attempts to streamline environmental reviews of large industrial projects.

But the lawmakers say the state’s biennium budget is likely to dominate the session, which starts Jan. 14.

“As usual, it’s going to be a budget thing,” 19th District Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview, said Thursday. “We certainly aren’t done with McCleary and the schools. And we’ve got to put more money into mental health. A lot of people are concerned about homelessness and housing issues, so there’s pressure to do something there, and just about everywhere.”

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said he is concerned about Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed $3.7 billion tax package and said he wants to focus on “living within our means and making good investments.”

He added that he wants to find solutions to better fund special education. School administrators this year will ask lawmakers to support special education funding and school capital facility needs. Educational Service District 112, an education service agency that includes the Longview, Kelso and other Cowlitz County school districts, estimates it will cost $21 million to make up the special education shortfall across the 30 districts it represents this year.

19th District Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said this week that there is “a legitimate beef” that legislators are not doing enough to fund special education. And he said he would like to continue to focus on K-12 funding and improving the higher educational system.

Area school superintendents will also ask legislators this session to change the school funding model make it easier for rural districts like Longview to offer competitive salaries for teachers.

Takko said the Legislature will likely look at teacher salaries, which rose significantly in some communities after strikes across the state this summer.

“A lot of the salary increases just aren’t sustainable. It’s going to come home here in a few years. There’s some talk of raising the cap on local levies but if we do that, we’re right back into another McCleary,” Takko said. (Longview and Kelso school districts both oppose raising the levy cap.)

The Legislature passed sweeping funding bills during recent years to meet the state Supreme Court McCleary decision ordering the state to fully fund basic education. Part of the decision included a limit on local school bond levies to reduce dependence on local dollars to bridge funding gaps.

20th District Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said the Legislature will continue to “tweak” its McCleary fix to resolve problems it has caused for rural schools.

Local school districts are also asking legislators to lower the 60 percent supermajority requirement to pass a capital bond to a simple majority. Recent bond measures in Castle Rock and Longview failed at the ballot despite receiving 55 percent and 58 percent approval, respectively. Local school officials say a simple majority would make it easier to modernize and replace crumbling buildings.

The City of Kelso has asked lawmakers to adjust the way tourism tax dollars are distributed in Cowlitz County. The cities in the county get 2 percent of the state sales tax collected in their jurisdictions to promote tourism. Cowlitz County collects an additional 2 percent lodging tax from hotels and motels for tourism projects.

In most of the state, the lodging tax goes back to the cities where it is collected, Kelso City Manager Steve Taylor said this week. For Kelso, that’s an additional $180,000 a year that is generated in the city but goes to the county. Kelso is asking legislators to amend state law to allow the city to get that hotel/motel tax money. The change would not impact taxpayers, but would redistribute the revenue. Kalama, Woodland and Longview support the policy change, Taylor said. The city has been unable to negotiate the matter with the county, he said.

This redistribution would allow the city to pay for its own projects instead of asking the state for money, like the $1 million the city is requesting to improve Tam O’Shanter Park, Taylor said.

“I am for local control of tax revenue. Too often we’ve gotten away from (that),” 19th District Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said Friday. “This is an issue we’re seeing beyond lodging tax. Local entities are trying to claw back money they were supposed to get that was nickeled and dimed away.”

The City of Longview has requested about $2.08 million for two capital projects: Replacing bathrooms at Lake Sacajawea and helping finance the Beech Street extension.

Rep. Blake said he will introduce a bill instructing the state Department of Ecology to clarify when global carbon emissions would need to be considered in the permitting process for an industrial project. The legislation was spurred by the lengthy and controversial environmental review processes for projects like the proposed Longview coal export terminal and Kalama methanol plant, he said.

“Project proponents shouldn’t live in fear of the unknown and Ecology should ... put it in rule when (the impact of global carbon emissions) does or doesn’t apply, rather than just being some arbitrary determination,” Blake said.

Both Longview and Kelso councils have said they would support efforts to “streamline” the environmental permitting process.

Rep. Walsh said he has a similar bill that establishes “clearer” criteria for when Ecology issues water permits. He also plans to introduce a bill to curb what he considers regulatory agency overreach.

“In my opinion ... you have unelected agencies essentially making law,” he said. “The legislative branch needs to reassert its authority over the rulemaking process.”

20th District Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Centralia, is proposing a carbon reduction bill that uses utility tax incentives to encourage businesses to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and invest in energy efficient practices, he said. He also wants to work on making health care bills more transparent.

Braun will run a bill this year that would provide $500 million to build regional mental health facilities across the state. He and Takko, Blake and DeBolt all said the Legislature needs to support transitioning mental health services away from large institutions to smaller, community facilities.

DeBolt and Orcutt both plan to continue working on bringing broadband to rural communities.

Takko is introducing multiple bills to try to make local government more efficient, including a constitutional amendment that creates governance continuity in the event of a catastrophic disaster, such as the predicted Cascadia earthquake.

The Legislature will also consider a $20 to $40 million land swap between the School Trust Lands and Wahkiakum and Pacific counties to free up timber land. Much of the county timber land is under protection for marbled murrelet, whereas the School Trust Lands, which can be located anywhere in the state, owns unencumbered land in those counties. Blake said the land swap is likely to take multiple biennium budget cycles.

“These lands were lands that the counties at the time specifically asked the state to manage to produce revenue. It’s unfortunate that the federal government has come in and told the state and counties that they can’t manage these lands that were set aside to produce revenue,” Blake said.

Blake said he is also going to focus on restoring hatchery production for commercial and sport fishermen, as well as supporting southern resident killer whale recovery.

Reporter Mallory Gruben contributed to this story.

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