October 26, 2017

Taxes to water, lawmakers share 2017 legislative hits and misses for rural Washington

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(l to r) Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle; Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline; Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville; and House Republican Floor Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm; speaking on a panel at AWB's Rural Jobs Summit on Oct. 24 in Moses Lake. (Photo: B. Mittge/AWB)
"Rural and urban" is not the same as "east and west" in Washington state.

That fact was illustrated by the bipartisan group of lawmakers -- from both sides of the Cascades and from the Oregon border to the Canadian border -- that attended the AWB Rural Jobs Summit Oct. 23-24 at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake.

The summit featured an afternoon panel of four top legislative leaders -- one from each caucus -- including Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville; Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle; House Republican Floor Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm; and Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline; and moderated by AWB Vice President of Government Affairs Gary Chandler.

Speaker Chopp began the conversation listing the accomplishments of the House Democratic Caucus when it comes to addressing rural job creation: the timber tax relief package, working with ports on infrastructure funding and support for the health care sector in Spokane.

Improving the economy across the state, he said, is "not just about tax breaks, but supporting programs that help communities."

But, Chopp did say he would support revisiting the business and occupation tax relief for manufacturing passed as part of the state operating negotiations that the governor later vetoed, if it was revamped to "focus the tax relief on rural areas."

Schoesler outlined his caucus' top priorities in 2018: A fix to the Hirst water rights ruling and addressing Washington's tax and regulatory climate holding back investment and job creation.

"First is Hirst," he said, "because it impacts every county." And, he said, Washington state doesn't need to "test drive" any more rules and regulations from the state Department of Ecology (DOE), such as those that led to the recent permit denial for Millennium Bulk Terminals' project in Longview.

"The tax base is leaving with the stalling of southwest Washington projects," Schoesler said.

On how tax breaks can help rural job creation, Schoesler pointed to the food processor tax incentive passed by the Legislature that helped Lamb Weston invest $200 million to expand its Pasco plant and create 150 local jobs.

Wilcox said that he was glad to see that "rural" was not being confused with "eastern Washington," which he said is demonstrated by the large number of lawmakers from urban, Democratic legislative districts.

"There are rural parts in all 39 counties," he said, adding that lawmakers need to acknowledge that when looking at policies that help or hurt rural job growth.

He said that part of that means taking up bills on the House floor that may not be the idea of the Democrats in the majority, a not-so-veiled reference to belief by many that there were enough votes -- bipartisan support -- to pass the Senate's Hirst fix this year, but the bill was held up by the majority party.

Shifting gears, Chase said one of the big issues to businesses locating in rural areas is broadband access.

"We have a global economy that operates on the internet," she said. "We need it for schools and we need it to attract business."

How broadband expansion would be funded was not discussed, but it was a point brought up throughout the day during nearly every panel presentation.

A major bone of contention on rural job creation, Wilcox and Schoesler said, is what they perceive as regulatory overreach by the state DOE in denying project permits and crafting environmental impact statements on projects that set an historic precedent to require global environmental considerations when permits are requested for local, Washington-based projects.

"There are four or five projects that would provide good-paying, labor jobs that are being held up by the agency," Schoesler said, adding that tighter controls need to be placed on the appeals process for projects.

Chase suggested that perhaps there needs to be a new process to deal with project permitting.

"We have enough process in Olympia," countered Wilcox, and cited several bipartisan measures that survived the legislative process that were later vetoed by the governor, such as the school siting bill and a rural railroads bill.

"We need to draw the executive branch into the bipartisan work and process of the Legislature," said Wilcox.

Chandler wrapped up the panel on an optimistic note.

"I can't say it as well as Alex [McGregor] said it this morning, but I believe there are brighter days ahead, if we work together. There is no issue raised today that cannot be solved."