17th District legislators face citizens at town hall events

Rep. Kevin Waters, Sen. Lynda Wilson and Rep. Paul Harris (left to right) face citizens at a 17th District Legislative Town Hall event Saturday at the Port of Camas-Washougal. Photo courtesy Leah Anaya
Rep. Kevin Waters, Sen. Lynda Wilson and Rep. Paul Harris (left to right) face citizens at a 17th District Legislative Town Hall event Saturday at the Port of Camas-Washougal. Photo courtesy Leah Anaya

Sen. Lynda Wilson and Reps. Paul Harris and Kevin Waters provided updates on the 2023 legislative session and answered questions from citizens in attendance

Leah Anaya
For Clark County Today

This week marks the halfway point for Washington state’s 2023 legislative session. As there have been hundreds of bills introduced since the pre-filing period, representatives from the 17th Legislative District held two town hall meetings on Saturday (March 18), first at the Port of Camas-Washougal and then in Skamania County. 

The meetings were the first in-person of its kind for the 17th since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. State Senator Lynda Wilson and Representatives Paul Harris and Kevin Waters gave brief updates on what they’ve been championing for the past two months, and then opened the floor to questions from the audience.

First, Sen. Wilson told the crowd that she was serving on the Law and Justice committee and is also the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means committee. She started off her time discussing the overdose epidemic in Washington, specifically regarding fentanyl. 

“The number one cause of death in those under 60 years old,” she said, “is overdosing, and most of that is due to fentanyl.” She also discussed “skyrocketing” crime and mentioned that it’s currently at a 25-year high in the state. 

“Forty-five thousand cars were stolen in Washington state last year,” she said, “and in King County, there were 1,600 cars stolen in just one month!” 

Wilson also said that Washington is the third highest state in the nation in terms of auto theft per capita, and it’s still the lowest state in terms of police officers per capita. 

The homeless issue in the state was discussed as well, saying that it is “off the charts,” and that the billions of dollars that has been “thrown at” the situation in the state is “not working.” 

“We are at the top,” she said. “We [have] twenty times the nation as a whole more homeless than other states.”

Rep. Harris mentioned that he is serving on four committees in Olympia: Education, Appropriations, Healthcare, and Rules. One bill he is championing is House Bill 1112, which imposes “criminal penalties for negligent driving involving the death of a vulnerable user victim.” Rep. Harris attempted to get the bill passed last session but was unsuccessful, so he’s attempting it again this year. The bill would make it a gross misdemeanor for a person to operate “a vehicle … in a manner that is both negligent and endangers or is likely to endanger any person or property, and he or she proximately causes great bodily harm or substantial bodily harm of a vulnerable user of a public way.” He said that he’s working to make the bill bipartisan and thus more likely to pass, but noted that “the idea of increasing [punishments for crimes] in this state is tough.” He added, “To be frank, it’s tough for progressives to vote on increasing punishments.”

As a freshman representative, Waters said he listens a lot. He has also introduced a bill, however, that would allow persons aged 18-20 to work in the back of bars and taverns under strict guidelines. This would assist with the loss of workforce that took place during and after the pandemic restrictions. He also mentioned that education is a priority for him, adding that it’s also a priority for the other two lawmakers in attendance. He noted that some of the rural school buildings have not been updated in decades, and some of them have teachers who have been around since the 1970s.

Area citizens packed the Port of Camas-Washougal conference room for a 17th Legislative District Town Hall event Saturday. Photo courtesy Leah Anaya
Area citizens packed the Port of Camas-Washougal conference room for a 17th Legislative District Town Hall event Saturday. Photo courtesy Leah Anaya

The questions from the group in attendance mostly focused on education, especially with the superintendents of both the Camas and Washougal school districts in attendance. Sen. Wilson mentioned that the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has $100 million at their disposal that was originally allotted to helping with the learning loss issue brought on by shutting down schools at the height of the COVID pandemic. 

“That did not happen,” she said, noting that Washington state used to be ranked 10th in the country in terms of education. “That’s not anymore,” she said. Shortly after she brought up these facts, Camas Superintendent John Anzalone, as well as a man wearing a sticker that read “Fully Fund Our Schools,” spoke up, asking the lawmakers to advocate for more money to go into public schools. 

“Republicans don’t want to raise prices on anything,” the man said, “and I think that’s unconscionable.” 

Rep. Harris assured the men that schooling was a priority, and said that there has already been a 3.8 percent increase to teachers, and another 3.5 percent that’s likely to go through. He also established with the superintendents present, however, that enrollment in both districts is down by hundreds of students each. Evergreen School District, as well, is down in enrollment 13 percent, he said, and schools were actually allotted more money (federally and from the state) during the pandemic, despite most classes being moved to an online setting. Schools will be getting more money for special education programs as well as transportation, he assured the group.

A woman in the audience retorted, “What about the OSPI money? Why are we going to budget for even more to schools that are failing when they have that money just sitting there? That is what’s unconscionable. Put that money to work!” 

Sen. Wilson mentioned that she pulled a report for Evergreen High School and found that only 10.7 percent of students in the district are proficient in reading and mathematics. Further, she said, there are only two schools in the district that are above 50 percent proficiency, with the highest at 55 percent.

When the bills concerning the Second Amendment were brought up, some stood and asked them to continue to fight for the gun rights of citizens. One woman stood up and gave an impassioned speech about the amount of “dead children” from school shootings. 

“That’s because mental health assistance is terrible in our state!” another woman yelled to her. “How about we focus on getting people help instead of taking guns from law-abiding citizens!” A man also yelled, “And stop defunding our police and making their jobs so hard too!” Sen. Wilson said she’s committed to fighting against the imposing gun bills and pointed out that one of the worst, in her opinion, was Senate Bill 5078 concerning liability for firearm manufacturers when a firearm is used in the commission of a crime. “Lakewood’s largest employer is a gun manufacturer,” she said. “If that bill passes, they won’t be able to get liability insurance, and likely won’t be able to operate.”

The topic of the Interstate Bridge replacement was brought up, and the fact that an additional $2.7 billion was requested for the project when $500 million would be sufficient. “We are continuing to ask the questions,” Sen. Wilson said, “and we don’t get answers. I also would like to know how they can tell they need $2 billion for the project when they don’t even have a plan in place for it. That makes no sense to me.” 

Rep. Harris added, “Realize, this is the government building something. It won’t be fast.” He also added that “equity” has “come into the equation,” meaning, he said, that Portland is advocating for “bad air” to be pumped out of the area to somewhere else to encourage “air equity.” He said, “We know we need a common sense bridge. So do it, or retrofit the existing bridge for the next 100 years. We are working on it.”

Election integrity issues were also brought up, with one person noting that there are 40,000 ballots being issued in Clark County to inactive voters. “Where are those ballots?” she said. 

A greenhouse emissions bill was also brought up, and Rep. Harris defended his “no” vote on the piece of legislation, saying, “They should have tried to make that bill bipartisan and slowed the transition from natural gas if that’s what they want. That bill did not address the real problems, and if I could, I would vote no on it again.” 

Sen. Wilson added, “Look at what happened in California. That’s exactly what they’re trying to do here, and we have no idea what the outcome would be.” 

Budgetary issues were briefly discussed, and Sen. Wilson said that if the “capital gains” income tax is indeed found to be unconstitutional, that will be an added hardship as “that money has already been spent.”

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