Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

The Olympia two-step

Covering Washington state politics is a daunting prospect for any reporter, especially for one obliged to occasionally take his eyes off the Capitol building in order to cover other, more pressing, local issues.

However, the most challenging task of all may be following the birth, death and eventual resurrection of state budget proposals, in a game of watching what many might call, “The Bad Idea That Will Not Die.”

Case in point: the possible repeal of Washington’s out-of-state sales tax exemption. For those that haven’t read the VBJ in the past couple of months, the loss of the exemption is a critical issue for Clark County businesses, many of them reliant on revenue from sales tax-free Oregon.

That regional economic reality made longtime Vancouver state Rep. Deb Wallace’s proposal to repeal the exemption last fall all the more puzzling – a stance the then-announced candidate for the 3rd Congressional District quickly backed away from when confronted with angry business opinion on the measure early this year.

In an Op-Ed in the Jan. 22 issue of the VBJ, Wallace assured readers that she would work to find alternatives to the repeal. For some, including jeweler Erik Runyan of Erik Runyan Jewelers in downtown Vancouver, the issue seemed as good as dead.

Or so they thought.

In a phone call last month, I informed Runyan that the repeal was very much alive, this time as an integral part of the state Senate’s budget proposal to close an estimated $2.7 billion budget gap. Though Runyan hadn’t heard the news, he seemed unsurprised by this latest legislative back-and-forth.

That’s a feeling echoed throughout the region’s business community – a sense of resignation over decisions affecting thousands made by people seemingly light-years removed from everyday reality and not just 100 miles up the I-5 corridor.

Sometimes the back-and-forth between legislators stands to benefit our region, a fact not lost on dozens of workers at Larch Corrections Center near Yacolt who may yet find themselves off the budgetary chopping block.

But as the Legislature slogs through the 16th day of its special session, continued uncertainty regarding the future of the sales tax exemption is serving as an added burden for some Clark County retailers struggling through a tepid economic recovery.

Last week, Sen. Craig Pridemore, an opponent of the exemption repeal, termed the measure’s prospects in the Senate as “difficult.”

As budget negotiations continue between Gov. Chris Gregoire and House and Senate leaders, what we need now is clarity on this issue for Southwest Washington businesses and their workers. And we need it soon.