State Rep. Peter Abbarno’s rural infrastructure bill was met this week with support from local stakeholders who say the proposed state grant program could help further sewer, broadband and other infrastructure projects that have so far been difficult to fund.
House Bill 1263 is the first bill of the session with Abbarno as the primary sponsor, aligning with what the Centralia Republican said before the Legislature convened: that his focus would be on issues that, while not the most glamorous, would lay the groundwork for economic development.
“To say we want housing, to say we want family-wage jobs is phase two or three in any plan,” Abbarno said Wednesday. “If a locality doesn’t have infrastructure like sewer, water, transmission lines or even broadband, economic development can’t happen. Housing can’t be built.”
The hope is that the grant program will have high ceilings and low matches so that larger, regional projects can go forward and distressed counties such as Lewis County don’t have to put projects on hold.
In a press release put out before public testimony, Abbarno said local governments have previously applied for low-interest loans from the state’s public works assistance account, and that the Legislature has been able to “raid” the account in years past to compensate for budget shortfalls.
Supporters such as Lisa Striedinger, a housing advocate in Lewis County, said the bill would help address homelessness by speeding up development currently slowed down by lack of infrastructure. That housing, she said, is critical to getting homeless residents connected to other vital services like health care.
“Health care is housing, housing is health care. Without housing, our community members cannot get well,” Striedinger said.
Levi Rodriguez, who works in IT for the Centralia School District, also told lawmakers that the grant program could accelerate broadband expansion and help address educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Buck Lucas, special projects manager at the state Public Works Board — which would likely administer the grant program — testified that rural communities are limited in their ability to pay for infrastructure projects, with fewer residents to bear the costs.
“For them … the cost of a multi-million dollar project cannot be spread among a few rate-payers,” Lucas said.
So far, no Democrats have signed onto the bill. If the bill progresses, it will likely undergo more changes. The Hoh Tribe, for example, raised concerns Wednesday that the bill leaves out tribal governments. Abbarno said he plans to address the issue in a substitute bill.
Mike Ennis, government affairs director for the Association of Washington Business, also criticized the bill for leaving out private industry, although Abbarno said businesses couldn’t be included in the grant program due to legal concerns.
“Because, most of us know that you can’t gift money. So they’ll still be eligible for loan programs, but this is a grant program,” he said, noting that other provisions would allow businesses to object to grants that overstep into private projects. “The intent of the bill is not to duplicate, but instead to coordinate.”