18th District legislators touring ahead of 2019 session

The lawmakers heard from constituents in Ridgefield, Battle Ground, Camas, and Salmon Creek this past weekend

RIDGEFIELD — With the 2019 legislative session just around the corner in Olympia, lawmakers have been making the rounds to hear from constituents. Members of the 18th Legislative District held four town hall meetings this past Saturday, including stops in Ridgefield, Battle Ground, Camas, and Salmon Creek.

The Salmon Creek meeting was actually the first time a town hall meeting was held in that part of the district. Sen. Ann Rivers said it was being done to hear from other people who couldn’t attend on the fringes of the county, and was the best attended of the four meetings.

Legislators from the 18th District talk at a Saturday Town Hall in Ridgefield (from left-to-right, Representative-elect Larry Hoff, Sen. Ann Rivers, and Rep. Brandon Vick). Photo by Chris Brown
Legislators from the 18th District talk at a Saturday Town Hall in Ridgefield (from left-to-right, Representative-elect Larry Hoff, Sen. Ann Rivers, and Rep. Brandon Vick). Photo by Chris Brown

The day started in Ridgefield, where a packed room at the Clark County Fire & Rescue station on N. 65th Avenue asked questions about everything from education, to taxes, and the environment.

“I’m deeply appreciative that you’ve come out,” said Rivers in her opening statement, “and your willingness to partner with us to help us understand what’s important to you so we can carry that back to Olympia with us as we enter this long legislative session.”

Also on hand were Representatives Brandon Vick and the recently elected Larry Hoff.

“I am a 67-year old freshman,” joked Hoff. “It’s been a while since I’ve been a freshman, but what I’m learning from folks that have been in the legislature before is that everybody has gone through that.”

Hoff later said the best advice he’d received so far had been, “keep your mouth shut and your ears open.”

Vick is entering his fourth term representing the 18th District, and says he’ll be focusing again primarily on financial matters, as well as serving on the bi-state Interstate Bridge committee along with Senator Rivers.

The 105-day 2019 session will include a budget debate.

“We’ve got a lot of money coming in the doors,” says Vick, who serves on the House Finance Committee. “I think when all is said and done we’re going to have about $2 billion extra hanging around, over what we budgeted for, so that’s always where the debate happens.”

The Democratic majority grew in the House during the 2018 election. Hoff pointed out that his come-from-behind victory helped Republicans hold onto a seat that otherwise could have significantly tipped the balance of power in Olympia.

“Short of that there would be a super majority in the House,” said Hoff. “Whenever there’s a super majority, whatever party it is, it’s kind of tough to suggest that there could be compromise or discussions.”

A crowd at the Clark County Fire & Rescue building in Ridgefield attend a town hall meeting with 18th District representatives Saturday. Photo by Chris Brown
A crowd at the Clark County Fire & Rescue building in Ridgefield attend a town hall meeting with 18th District representatives Saturday. Photo by Chris Brown

While admitting several times that Republicans, especially in the House, have an uphill climb when it comes to their agenda, Vick said he believes that Democrats will also be torn this year.

“I think the Democrats are going to have to figure out who they are,” Vick said. “There was a lot of new Democrats elected on the very far left, and I think you’re seeing the same thing in D.C. too. It’s going to be a struggle, right? Which side of that coin is going to take charge?”

Rivers said she will be serving on the brand new Environment and Tourism Committee. “Still trying to figure out why those are married up,” she admitted. She will also be on the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, as well as Healthcare and the Rules Committee. She is also resuming her role as minority whip, meaning she will be among the top four elected leadership in the Senate.

Rivers is also among a handful of lawmakers in the United States selected to a national Opioid Fellowship, aiming to direct the conversation on addressing the nation’s growing opioid epidemic. Rivers has been skeptical of the use of methadone drugs as a way of helping people to get off of opioid painkillers, saying she doesn’t believe in replacing one form of addiction with another.

Environmental questions

One of the biggest topics at the Ridgefield meeting included the environment, which had one constituent wondering if the candidates had taken donations from several business groups. All admitted that they had, at one time or another, taken funding from those groups, but said that money didn’t impact their beliefs about environmental policy.

“If a constituent is in Olympia and I have a meeting with a lobbyist on my calendar, the lobbyist gets the bump, the constituent gets the meeting,” Vick said. “Quite honestly, we can hear from the paid guys any time.”

On environmental policy, Vick said he preferred incentivizing businesses to be better stewards of the environment, rather than using fines like those that would have been imposed by the recent carbon tax initiative voted down in the November election.

“I think we all recognize that we have to do better,” he said, “but the difference is in how you get there. Is it a carrot, or a stick?”

Vick said the idea of a tax on polluters seems like it would simply push those businesses out of the state, rather than making them work to clean things up.

“Do we just make them move to Louisiana and pollute there, instead of polluting here?” he asked. “Or do we help them make a good business decision to clean up what they’re doing?”

Rivers said her environmental record includes pushing for solar power incentives, as well as touring around the world to hear about how other countries are addressing concerns over climate change. She says, while many of those ideas may work for those countries, they’re often not compatible with how things work in the U.S. Still, she points out, the state of Washington has a good track record when it comes to environmental responsibility already.

“After the Centralia coal-fired power plant shuts down, we will be the lowest carbon emitting state in the union,” says Rivers. “So we’re doing very, very well here because it’s been a priority for a long time.”

Rivers was then asked how she feels about the proposal for a methanol plant at the Port of Kalama that has long been a controversial topic for the area. Rivers said she opposes it, but mostly on the grounds that it would have no benefit for people living here, but would instead be sold to China.

“We’re trying to take care of our people,” she said, “and when we’re selling off our capacity we ruin our ability to do that.”

On the Carbon Tax bill, Rivers said she opposed it because it would have hurt average consumers more than big polluters.

“That initiative had so many carve outs that the only polluters that were left were us,” she said. “If we’re going to do something for a carbon policy that will really make a difference, excellent. Let’s have that discussion. But that doesn’t mean that we need to be paying 30 cents more for a gallon of gas, which won’t go to support our infrastructure, which needs more support.”

Hoff likewise said he opposed the fee on polluters because it raised revenue without any direction on how it should be spent.

“I’ve been in the woods all my life. I can’t think of anything that’s more important,” said Hoff. “I also think that we contribute something to climate change … I don’t know what degree that is, but if there’s something that we could help the environment with, I’m all in favor of that.”

“I may not agree on how we get to the final place,” Rivers added, “but I agree that we should get there.”

Transportation issues

Talk also swirled around the topic of the Interstate Bridge and local congestion, with some suggesting that the Federal Government needs to be more involved in the project, taking over leadership.

“That is a steep hill, and there has not been a lot of cooperation,” Vick said. “And that’s not a congressional member issue, I think it’s just a lack of interest at the [U.S. Department of Transportation] right now.”

Rivers and Vick are both on a bi-state commission, formed out of the Washington Legislature, aimed at bringing Oregon back to the table to talk about replacing the century-old Interstate Bridge. Lawmakers south of the Columbia River said they’re willing to talk, but indicated at a meeting in December that no one should expect any serious conversation about a new project for at least a few years. Both states are locked into massive transportation spending packages that likely mean, short of tolls implemented on both the I-5 and I-205 bridges ahead of any project, funding isn’t likely to be available anytime soon.

Others, such as Clark County Citizens United, suggested that the state needs to address issues with the Growth Management Act (GMA) that have had the county tied up in litigation for several years. Environmental groups have sued, alleging the county has made it too easy for cities to annex land into their Urban Growth Boundaries. Rivers said there is a report due soon looking into complaints with the state’s GMA.

“I do believe with the Ruckles-House report you’re going to see some modification,” Rivers said. “It won’t come as quickly as you’d like, but I do think that we’re going to see some movement in that.”

Vick added that what has changed this time is 38 of the state’s 39 counties, with only King County excluded, have been at the legislature’s doorstep asking for changes to the GMA.

“The question is going to be, what is the magnitude of the changes?” Vick said. “I understand people want to see the GMA gone, I probably would too, but that’s not going to be on the table.”

Education funding

Of course the issue of how the state funds education also came up. In the wake of the McCleary schools funding fix passed in the previous session, many districts have complained that they were left worse off by the changes. Those include La Center and Battle Ground, which saw huge hits to local levy dollars that, they say, will take more money out of their schools than they received from the legislature.

“We’ve had districts that have struggled,” Vick admitted. “Battle Ground always seems to lag in being able to pass the levies and things like that. The point is that you shouldn’t have to go and ask for, what, another three bucks a thousand (of assessed value) just so you can have what Ridgefield has, or what Camas has. Everyone should be able to go to school and get the same education … I think McCleary did a lot of that,  but we’re going to have tweaks to do.”

Rivers also admitted that education funding will be a topic in the session, but she doesn’t expect any major revisions to come right away to what was approved last year.

“We just turned so many knobs, and now we kind of need to see what happened,” said Rivers. “We know we have to do some more work in special education. I think we’ll get there.”

Other subjects

Other topics brought up included the issue of tobacco and marijuana use in schools, often through kids getting their hands on Juuls. Those are small vaping pens, often shaped to simply look like a USB memory stick, that many students are using in school without teachers knowing about it. Vick said 17th District Representative Paul Harris is leading the charge in looking at possible new legislation to control such devices.

Taxes were, of course, also a major issue. Several people said they feel like the state, county, and their local municipalities are nickel-and-diming them to death. One mentioned an increase in fees on things like boat launches or fishing licenses. Another quipped that we’re always told an increase in taxes will be equal to “a cup of coffee.”

“I’m tired of paying for other people’s coffee,” he said.

Rivers said people should see a 30 percent drop in their local funding levies taxes, due to the legislature’s move to cap local school funding levies. There will also be one-time property tax relief approved by the legislature last year.

Wrapping up, Vick mentioned that his recollection was the 2017 town hall in Ridgefield had only about 15 people in attendance, mostly from the city government, so it’s good to see people paying attention and plugged into the process. By all accounts, all four of Saturday’s town hall meetings were well attended.

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