R-51 a big issue in 21st

  • Bill Sheets<br>Edmonds Enterprise editor
  • Thursday, February 21, 2008 12:29pm

It’s nothing personal against state Rep. Mike Cooper, says his challenger in this year’s election, Republican Jeff Thorp.

But Thorp is adamant in his belief that Referendum 51 – the transportation revenue package that Cooper helped write – is “an act of political cowardice.”

“If it was such a good idea,” Thorp said, it should have been passed in the state Legislature rather than being put up for the voters to decide on Nov. 5.

Thorp, a retired truck driver, doesn’t believe the combination gas-tax hike and bonding package will make a difference in transportation difficulties, contending that too many projects go to King County and that it provides funding to start many projects but finishes none. He said he would support any kind of a tax increase for transportation only after the state shows it has eliminated waste in all other areas first and still comes up short on funds. Toll lanes are also an option, he said.

“We need to start over with a fresh sheet of paper,” Thorp said.

Cooper, D-Edmonds, said he doesn’t take offense at Thorp’s characterization of R-51.

First, he was one of 34 votes in the state House of Representatives to pass the tenets of R-51 at the legislative level rather than send them to the voters in the form of a referendum. Secondly, he thinks it is a good plan.

“I’m very proud of the package,” said Cooper, a Shoreline fire lieutenant seeking his fourth two-year term representing the 21st District. “We’ve put together a moderate package that addresses roads statewide.”

Eighty percent of the projects are funded to completion, Cooper said. More money is targeted for Snohomish County per capita than any other county in the state, according to Cooper, who serves as vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Snohomish County projects funded include completion of the interchange at Interstate 5 and 196th Street SW; widening of Highway 527 to the University of Washington-Bothell; construction of the multimodal transit center in Mukilteo and the first phase of land acquisition and engineering for the planned transit center in Edmonds; rail improvements for commuter and Amtrak passenger trains; four new car ferries; completion of HOV lanes through Everett, and improvements to Highway 9, Cooper said.

The referendum also requires regular reporting on the progress of the projects, he said.

If R-51 fails, Cooper said he would go back to Olympia and vote again for a gas tax increase, but believes another package will be sent to the voters.

“(Legislators) are going to be afraid to go to Olympia and take the vote,” he said.

Whoever wins the election will go to Olympia facing a two-year revenue shortfall projected at between $2 billion and $3 billion. Cooper attributed the deficit to a combination of what he called “good and bad initiatives” (those authorizing educational improvements as the former and Tim Eyman’s tax cutting initiatives as the latter), the economic downturn and cuts in federal Medicaid funding.

Cooper said Gov. Gary Locke has already asked department heads to prioritize their programs, and from that point the Legislature will “need to ask the tough questions.” Cooper said his priority would be to protect health care for seniors, the disabled and low-income children, along with education.

“I don’t want to raise taxes,” Cooper said, but he added that new sources of revenue will be explored, such as closing tax loopholes, gambling and applying sales tax to services.

“Absolutely nothing should be left off the table,” he said.

Not so for Thorp, revenue-wise. He calls for use of “zero-based budgeting” in which every department starts anew each year, having to rejustify all its requests. He advocates mandatory performance audits for all agencies – he would support spending the money to hire the staff to allow the audits to be carried out by the state auditor, contending it would more than pay for itself.

“We need to tighten down the screws until they won’t tighten any more,” Thorp said. “It boils down to choices. Someone’s cow is going to get gored.”

Thorp said education would be a priority for him, noting that it is cited in the state Constitution as the paramount duty of the state. He supports maintaining the commitment to teacher cost of living adjustments and removing the requirement that school levies receive 60 percent of the vote to pass.

Cooper said a proposal to remove the supermajority requirement was voted upon in the Legislature last session and defeated, despite his own yes vote. He supports giving districts more flexibility in accommodating their teachers based on cost-of-living differences in different parts of the state.

Regarding health-care costs, Cooper said costs have to be brought down somehow. He advocated closer scrutiny of insurance company profit margins and suggested either a cap on profits or measures to encourage the companies to lower their premiums. Thorp called for closer scrutiny of those on the state’s Basic Health Plan to make sure they qualify, and wider publicity of drug discounts available through the private sector.

In general, Thorp said he is running primarily to give voters a choice and because partisan politics have rendered the Legislature ineffective in recent years. Despite the previous year’s tie being broken in the House last year, “nothing got done,” Thorp said.

Cooper said he has the “leadership and experience” to make progress on transportation and the other issues on which he’s worked, such as consumer protection. “I’ve kept my commitment to the people of the 21st District,” he said.