I’ve shared with you before that one of my all-time favorite television series was “The West Wing,’’ which you might find ironic because the show spent seven seasons depicting a liberal White House.
The 14th episode of the final season, entitled “Two Weeks Out,’’ included a scene in which a presidential candidate, portrayed brilliantly by Alan Alda, held a “til-they-drop press conference’’ outside a California nuclear plant because he was facing a political crisis due to the fact that he had previously lobbied for the plant, which had just released radioactive steam into the atmosphere.
I didn’t ask Sen. Ann Rivers (R-La Center, 18th District) if she had ever seen the episode I’m referring to, but it’s obvious the veteran lawmaker understands the aforementioned political principle because she has recently executed her own version of it.
Rivers drew the ire of more than a few of her constituents when she voted for the $16.1 billion transportation package, which reached final approval earlier this month. Among area lawmakers representing the 17th and 18th legislative districts, Rivers was the only one who voted for the package, which includes an 11.9-cent increase in the gas tax over the next two years. It’s the largest gas tax increase in state history.
Sen. Don Benton (R-Vancouver, 17th District) and representatives Liz Pike (R-Camas, 18th District), Brandon Vick (R-Vancouver, 18th District), Lynda Wilson (R-Vancouver, 17th District) and Paul Harris (R-Vancouver, 17th District) each voted against the transportation package.
“I’m not afraid to stand up in front of anybody,’’ Rivers told me during a visit last week. “I had three town halls and each of them had no less than 60 people show up. At the end of those three town halls, I only had four people who came to me and said I still should have voted no. I had 20 ‘coffees’ with a least three or four people at each one and after I got through with my explanation, not one person disagreed with me.
“I took every single meeting with every single angry person who contacted me,’’ Rivers said. “If I was my own constituent, I would have been bent out of shape too. I can’t tell you the anger I faced.’’
So, why did Rivers – a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative who views raising taxes in the same vein as swallowing cyanide and arsenic – cast her vote to raise our gas taxes? It’s pretty simple. She points out that SB-5987 was going to pass with or without her and unless she got on board, folks in her district weren’t going to have anything to show for the extra 11.9 cents per gallon that they will soon be shelling out.
“This is worth the explanation; it’s worth the fight,’’ Rivers said. “I will have this conversation with anyone. I’ll be darned if my people are going to pay and not get anything out of it.
“If I’m standing at that gas station and I look over at a project that was built as a result of the tax dollars that my constituents paid, I can live with that,’’ Rivers said. “But, without my (yes) vote, my people would have gotten nothing and they still would have had to pay.’’
The actions Rivers is referring to are her own negotiations with Sen. Curtis King (R-14th District), the chamber’s Transportation Committee chairman.
“This was an extraordinarily heavy lift,’’ said Rivers, referring to the negotiations.
Rivers said those negotiations resulted in $106 million in transportation projects for the 18th District including $7.7 million for Battle Ground’s 502/503 project, $7.8 million for the Ridgefield rail overpass project, $50 million for enhancements to the I-5 interchange at the Fairgrounds exit (NE 179th St.) and $7.5 million in discretionary funds for projects in cities in the 18th District. Other projects included the Camas slough bridge on Highway 14 near Camas ($25 million) and $7.5 million for the 27th Street overpass project in Washougal.
“It was a gut-wrenching decision, but when I turned it into a flat-out business decision and took my emotion out of it, it was definitely what I had to do,’’ Rivers said. “They had the votes without me. If people in my district are going to pay real dollars, they are going to get real projects and real reforms.’’
It should also be noted that the projects Rivers secured were moved up on the priority list in the transportation package, and therefore will be funded sooner rather than later. For example, the controversial Mill Plain interchange project was funded ($98 million), but it was “aged out 15 years’’ according to Rivers.
In sharp contrast, the NE 179th St. interchange project will be funded much sooner, even though Rivers claimed it was an “entirely unprepared project’’ with no advance design or permitting. Also, Battle Ground’s 502/503 project will be funded in the first three bienniums ($1 million in 2015-2017, $3.8 million in 2017-2019, and $2.9 million in 2019-2021).
Rivers said the transportation package includes several reforms that she indicated made the bill easier to accept. Those reforms include:
• The implementation of a “Practical Design’’ concept she says will save taxpayer dollars on projects paid for with the transportation package.
• A change in the way sales tax revenue from transportation projects would be routed, reverting those funds back into road projects rather than being sent to the general fund.
• Added congestion relief. Rivers said that if proposed projects don’t include a congestion relief element, they won’t get funded.
• Streamlining the way transportation projects are processed by the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
“WSDOT has a huge black eye,’’ Rivers said. “They have no credibility. These reforms get us part of the way there, the rest will be the proof in the pudding.’’
Rivers also went on to explain that the bill’s sponsors agreed to a tradeoff to get Republicans like herself on board that eliminated a push for Low Carbon Fuel Standards in the transportation package that would have pushed the gas tax increase to more than $1 a gallon. There’s also provisions that prevent Gov. Jay Inslee from adding the standards after the fact.
“When I explain the Low Carbon Fuel Standards Provision, everyone tells me, ‘I get it. You did the right thing,’’’ Rivers said.
Obviously, the other lawmakers from the 17th and 18th legislative districts didn’t feel those projects and those reforms were enough to justify a vote in favor of the largest gas tax increase in Washington’s history. Rivers said she even received pressure from the Clark County Board of Councilors to vote against the transportation package.
As a fiscal conservative, I still have a hard time wrapping my head around a vote in favor of the largest gas tax in state history. But, in the end, Rivers is willing to have as many “til-you-drop’’ conversations, meetings, coffees and interviews as necessary to explain her vote. I find that to be honorable. There are too many elected officials and others who don’t have that kind of courage. I know because I deal with them on a regular basis.
“I can’t be so afraid to lose my job that I don’t do my job,’’ Rivers said.
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