The three Democrats who represent Central and West Vancouver held a Saturday town hall to recap the state legislative session
VANCOUVER — With a slim majority in both the House and Senate, Democrats were able to accomplish much of what they wanted during the 60-day legislative session that wrapped up with a flurry of activity late Thursday in Olympia.
Along with a $4.2 billion capital construction budget, which lawmakers intended to finally satisfy the state Supreme Court when it comes to education funding, lawmakers also passed one-time property tax relief, insurance coverage for abortions, a voting rights act, a ban on bump stocks, a statewide Net Neutrality rule (which could face a Federal challenge), and a surprise change to the state’s Use of Force laws.
On Saturday, Representatives Monica Stonier and Sharon Wylie, along with Senator Annette Cleveland of the 49th Legislative District, all Democrats, held a public town hall to talk about what they achieved, and what they hope to accomplish in the next session. Stonier said the failure of Governor Jay Inslee’s proposed Carbon Tax was a big disappointment to her.
“I share the frustration that we don’t seem to be moving far or fast enough in such a beautiful green state,” said Stonier, “when we look at our environmental policies at the state level.”
Another environmental proposal, which would have mandated coal and oil-free energy in Washington State by 2034, also failed to move out of committee.
Of course the highlight of the session for lawmakers on both sides was funding education and capital improvements. A total of $776 million will go to fully fund teacher salaries, with another $105 million earmarked to pay a $100,000-per-day fine that the state Supreme Court levied in 2016 when it ruled the legislature had failed to adequately fund education in the state. That money will also ultimately go towards education spending.
As far as local transportation spending, one of the most-asked questions at the Town Hall was about the future of the Interstate Bridge along I-5.
“We were successful in listing, for the first time, the I-5 Bridge Replacement project in our transportation supplemental budget,” says Sen. Cleveland. “Oregon has done a similar thing.”
Cleveland says an official letter will be going out to Oregon, to let them know that Washington is committed to an Interstate Bridge replacement, and that conversations will be continuing. She also said they’ll work hard to be part of the discussion about tolling, to make sure the residents of Southwest Washington aren’t unduly impacted.
Two other transportation items with potentially major local impact included a successful move to ramp up the timeline on improvements to the 179th Street interchange along I-5. Funding for that project previously wasn’t going to be available until 2023. Lawmakers also approved $900,000 to continue studying the possibility of super high-speed rail between Vancouver B.C. and Portland, though they cautioned that any such project is a long ways off.
During the last legislative session, lawmakers changed the way schools are funded, putting it more on statewide property taxes. That caused people across the state to see a rapid increase in the amount of their property tax bill. To offset that somewhat, this session they passed a one-time $390 million property tax relief package, which amounts to about $0.30 for every $1,000 of assessed value. That relief will come in 2019. Rep. Sharon Wylie said she would like to revisit the idea of income-based property tax assessment.
“The Capital Gains proposal was put forward where three million people would get property tax relief,” Wylie says, “and I think where we landed initially was 48,000 people, who can well afford it… well afford it… would pay a little bit more so that three million people wouldn’t be in danger of being taxed out of their homes.”
Wylie says another proposal she’d like to revisit wo
uld allow the elderly and people dealing with excessive medical bills to apply for property tax relief, an idea that received a round of applause from the gathered audience.
Another popular question had to do with income tax relief for those living in Washington but working in Oregon. One citizen suggested using the sales tax exemption available for Oregon shoppers as leverage. All three lawmakers said they see the need for reform in that area, but worry it could come at the expense of local business owners in Vancouver who see a lot of business out of Oregon.
“I have spent time sitting down with our businesses,” says Cleveland, “particularly those on Main Street who’ve opened their books to me, and while it’s counter-intuitive to me, I am amazed at how many people come across the river and actually shop at our Vancouver businesses. I’ve had a number tell me that over 50 percent of their business comes from Oregon.”
In the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting, lawmakers in Olympia proposed banning bump stocks and raising the minimum age to purchase an assault rifle to 21-years of age. While the first idea succeeded, the age limit failed to get through. All three women repeatedly cited the narrow margins for Democrats in both the House and Senate as reasons some of their ideas, such as a ban on the death penalty, failed to get through.
“If we were to pass policy without bi-partisan support,” added Stonier, “and leadership were to change, then those policies become even more political, and less collaborative, and less likely to maintain if there was a shift in control.”
Many moments of controversy plagued the legislative session, and Democrats specifically. One was a much-criticized move to exempt lawmakers from Public Records laws approved by voters. While it passed the House and Senate, it was ultimately vetoed by Governor Jay Inslee.
“It’s an issue that’s going to require work during the interim,” says Stonier. “We asked for a governor’s veto so that we could do this in daylight. So for those of you that are interested in that, there will be opportunities to weigh in, and there will be a lot of attention paid to that.”
About 20,000 citizens contacted the Governor’s office demanding the veto, after the bill was introduced and voted on without any public comment.
The move to approve changes to the state’s Use of Force rules also generated controversy. Lawmakers passed I-940, then passed a separate bill making changes to the measure. Usually they would either simply reject it and let it go to the voters, or pass a separate proposal and let voters decide between them.
“It has not been a great year for process and procedure,” Spokane Republican Michael Baumgartner said in a speech on the House floor. “That is the only thing that separates our government from other forms of government.”
But there were no apologies from Representatives Stonier and Wylie, or Senator Cleveland of Vancouver’s 49th District.
“For the first time in my public service Democrats were in the majority,” says Cleveland, “and I want to outline for you what that change looked like. We began as a Senate Democratic caucus agreeing that our foremost goal was to put people first. People first above politics, above all else. And I feel really, really pleased with the work that we did with that as our goal over the course of the 60 day session.”