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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Special representation for tribes on transit commission isn’t warranted

Washington state Democrats like to champion indigenous tribes. When they do, historic inequities, mistrust and complex treaties can influence outcomes. Disputes can even wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court. Finding the right balance can be tough, and Democratic lawmakers sometimes go too far in the name of equanimity.

Consider, for example, tribal representation on the Spokane Regional Transportation Council (SRTC). Democrats forgot they serve many constituencies in their rush to serve one.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, a Spokane Democrat, was behind a push during the recently concluded legislative session to mandate tribal involvement on the SRTC. His bill, which passed along partisan lines in both chambers of the Legislature, requires a seat on regional transportation commissions for any tribe that has a reservation or trust lands within the area covered by the commission. If a commission refuses, it would lose state transportation dollars.

The SRTC – and similar organizations across the state – provides a regional, coordinated approach to transportation planning and decides how to spend a small pot of state and federal funds. Its board has representatives from Spokane County, the city of Spokane, Airway Heights, Cheney, Deer Park, Fairfield, Latah, Liberty Lake, Medical Lake, Millwood, Rockford, Spangle, Waverly, Spokane Valley, the Washington State Department of Transportation, Spokane Transit Authority and Spokane International Airport.

Notice that all of those entities are either local jurisdictions or major local transportation authorities. The Spokane Tribe is neither.

The Spokane Reservation is outside the SRTC coverage area, and its few land holdings inside the SRTC total a few hundred acres, including the casino in Airway Heights. That makes it a major employer and generator of traffic, certainly, but no more relevant to regional transportation planning than any other large employer. Should Providence Health Care, which employs three times as many people as the Spokane Tribe Casino, now also get a reserved seat on the board?

If anything, the tribe has less claim to a seat than other large employers because of the generous tax agreements that it enjoys as a sovereign nation. Other employers pay taxes that fund transportation projects much more than the casino and tribe.

To be fair, there are hundreds of tribal members who live in Spokane County, but they already have representation on the SRTC via the existing board members. For example, Liberty Lake Mayor Steve Peterson represents any who happen to live there. Two neighbors, one who is a member of the Spokane Tribe and one who moved to the county last year, have the same need for an efficient, functional transportation system.

None of which means that the tribe shouldn’t have a seat on the board. Maybe when the board reorganizes and reapportions representation after the 2020 U.S. Census it should consider adding a seat or two for major employers. That’s a reasonable discussion and probably a good idea. The problem is Democrats in Olympia mandating that one well-connected group gets a seat.

What’s really behind this? We suspect it has as much to do with conflicting personalities and the fact that the tribes are generous supporters of Democratic candidates.

Money in politics is what it is, and this wouldn’t be the first time that donors and lobbyists with deep pockets gained the ear of a politician.

But the apparent bitterness among the players is striking. Though the law might have been written to cover the entire state, Riccelli’s target was the SRTC and the head of its board, Spokane County Commissioner Al French. As reported by Nicholas Deshais in The Spokesman-Review, Riccelli suggests that French doesn’t want to allow the tribe on the commission because he is upset about the casino development in Airway Heights.

Mike Tedesco, executive director of the Spokane Tribe, made it even more personal, calling French and the SRTC a “rinky-dink contraption of the Spokane political class to further their best interests.”

French, to his credit, took the high road. He appears open to a conversation about new seats on the board after new census data is available. Unfortunately, he won’t get to wait that long.

An earlier version of this editorial misidentified the Spokane Regional Transportation Council

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