Tri-Cities’ government agencies pay lobbyists to Olympia and Washington, D.C., hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to make their case before the Washington State Legislature and the U.S. Congress. Taxpayers pay about the same amount to their congressman, state representatives and state senators who were elected to do the same thing.
How do lobbyists earn their fees? Using public record requests, the Observer collected documents and emails between the lobbyists and their clients. This article about Richland will be the first in a series of articles about what the Observer learned.
While the city paid David C. Arbaugh to represent it in Olympia, it appears nobody worked harder than Richland Public Works Director Pete Rogalsky to lobby for Richland’s priorities during the 2021 Washington legislative session.
By the time the Richland City Council approved its list of legislative priorities for 2021, on Nov. 3, 2020, Rogalsky had been working for months for the transportation projects on the list — the Aaron Drive Flyover and the SR240/Van Giesen Street Interchange.
Arbaugh charges Richland $36,000 a year, much less than the $119,400 that he charges Chelan County Public Utility District #1 and less than two of his other five clients. He is the lowest paid lobbyist in the Tri-Cities where the fees range up to about $72,000 a year.
Arbaugh lists his address as Shelton, Washington, a town of 10,000 on the Puget Sound, 22 miles north of Olympia. Before starting his own firm, Arbaugh was director of government relations for the Washington Public Utilities District Association and political director for the Public School Employees of Washington.
Lobbyists typically give generously to political campaigns, particularly to elected officials who might have influence over the issues of interest to their clients. Compared to other lobbyists in the area, Arbaugh’s contributions were relatively modest.
In September 2019, Arbaugh contributed $250 to Rep. Matt Boehnke who represents Legislative District 16 that includes Richland. Boehnke is the highest-ranking Republican on the House Community and Economic Development Committee.
Arbaugh also gave $250 in July 2020 to Sen. Mark Schoelser who represents Legislative District 9 that includes Franklin County. Schoelser serves on the Senate Ways and Means Committee that writes the budget. Gael Tarleton who ran and lost for Washington Secretary of State received Arbaugh’s largest donation, $1000.
Other lobbyists worked for Richland as well through membership organizations like the Association of Washington Cities (AWC), and the Washington Public Utilities District Association (WPUDA).
While several Richland staff consulted with Arbaugh occasionally, Rogalsky relentlessly proposed letters and correspondence to legislators on the transportation projects.
Richland Business Services Manager Sandi Edgemon and Energy Services Director Clint Whitney availed themselves of Arbaugh’s advice on proposed regulatory changes and other matters that would impact city services. They worked with Arbaugh as well as WPUDA to understand various proposals.
In addition to advice, Arbaugh also provided a weekly update of the legislature’s progress on issues before it. Occasionally Arbaugh took on the tedious task of setting up telephone meetings between Richland staff and state legislators.
At one point in March 2021, when meeting arrangements with legislators dragged on for days, Rogalsky wrote to Arbaugh, “More time coordinating the event than performing it.
Rogalsky learned that there was a niche category of bicycle and pedestrian projects funding available. He worked with Kennewick to support submitting the Island View to Vista Field Trail for a $16 million grant that would include money for a bike/pedestrian bridge over SR240.
He wrote Arbaugh that he submitted the proposal to the city council at their March 23 meeting but noted “They didn’t say much on the project. I interpreted that as ‘go do what you do’ direction.”
Rogalsky also attempted to engage council members in meetings with legislators.
He wanted to include Mayor Ryan Lukson in a call to State Senator Curtis King, the highest-ranking Republican member of the Senate Transportation Committee, to discuss Richland’s priority transportation projects. Rogalsky wrote Arbaugh, “I don’t want to pass up an opportunity to keep our electeds engaged.”
Arbaugh responded, “I definitely hear you about electeds, but my sense is that this is a smaller conversation where we can talk some nuts and bolts about the transportation package.”
Rogalsky checked in with Richland City Manager Cindy Reents on Jan. 5 who supported Arbaugh’s position. Lukson wasn’t invited to the meeting.
Reents was a lame duck city manager at that time. In December, she and the council agreed that her last day on the job would be Jan. 22. When council members met with a consultant hired to help them in a search for a new city manager, Council member Terry Christensen complained about poor communication with Reents.
The Port of Benton did not have their own lobbyist, but they cooperated with Arbaugh, the City of Richland and the Washington Economic Development Association in a successful effort to pass legislation to allow tax increment financing (TIF) for local governments. Under TIF, signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee, cities and ports can finance development with future revenue from tax increases rather than through bonds.
At the end of the session, Richland came up empty handed on transportation projects. According to Rogalsky, after revenue shortfalls in 2020 due to Covid, funding was focused on keeping existing projects on track.
The Washington Department of Commerce budget did provide $900,000 for a replacement Hospice House in Richland. According to Chaplaincy Health Care Chief Financial Officer Jim Main, the group worked with area legislators to obtain the funding.