Fully funding education and strengthening the local economy got much of the attention Tuesday as legislators from the 19th and 24th districts talked about the upcoming legislative session and fielded questions from Grays Harbor residents at the Rotary Log Pavilion.
Freshly minted Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview, newly appointed 19th District Rep. JD Rossetti, Sequim Democrat Steve Tharinger, Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, and Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, were all present at the event. The legislative session begins Monday in Olympia.
A good part of Tuesday’s discussion, organized by Greater Grays Harbor Inc., dealt with ways to fully fund education as mandated by the McCleary decision, a court case over school funding. Levy reform, or not forcing school districts to pay for basic education with local levy dollars, came up often.
Hargrove, one of the Legislature’s most influential figures on budget matters, pointed out that in property poor districts, residents are paying three times as much in property tax as they are in more affluent places like Seattle.
“We have a terribly unfair situation across the state with local levies,” said Hargrove. “It’s because of a property rich-property poor situation. They have incredible property values and even with lower tax rates they have a huge amount of money that goes into local levies.”
Hargrove said he doesn’t believe fixing the levy issue will completely resolve the burden of funding McCleary, and added it will most likely fall into the hands of the electorate.
“Inevitably, I think whatever plan we come up with, we’ll have to go out for voters to ratify it,” he said.
Rossetti, who’s on the Longview School Board, also acknowledged levy inequalities as something that needs to be examined.
“We’re talking about these types of problems every day,” said Rosetti. “The rural school districts really need help this next year.”
Hoquiam Superintendent Mike Parker attended Tuesday’s meeting and asked the legislators about the possibilities of strikes.
Rossetti experienced strikes while in Kelso during the spring and summer.
Hargrove said the best way to deal with the possibility of strikes is fully funding education.
“As a Legislature, certainly we’re concerned about strikes but we can’t do anything about that. We have to come up with a plan to fund McCleary this year that has to be accomplished by the end of 2018,” he said.
Tharinger was appointed as chairman of the House Capital Budget Committee in October and said during the upcoming session lawmakers will have roughly $85 million in the capital budget, compared to a $3.8 billion budget legislators wrote in July.
“We’ll do what we can, but it’s going to be very challenging. If you’re thinking about projects, I wouldn’t say don’t apply or don’t start the process, because that will help us build a budget around what we’ll need in the next biennium,” he said.
Tharinger also talked about the possibility of developing an industry for cross laminated timber products, touting Grays Harbor as an area with deep ties to timber.
“We just need to develop that production so we can create those jobs, hopefully, here on the Harbor,” he said.
Blake acknowledged that the Harbor has been hit by hard economic times. He cited the Port as an economic driver in the area and said he believes there are opportunities to expand on the coast.
“We’re poised here to move forward. … I think there’s opportunity across the river to build this economy. Westport is one of the largest seaports in the entire nation and I think there’s real opportunity to grow that,” he said.
Minimum wage was an issue brought up by Takko, who explained he hopes to see a statewide minimum wage that is well thought out by the Legislature.
“I hope we can work something out that’s reasonable, statewide and something that local governments can’t pre-empt,” said Takko. “We really need a comprehensive thing with the minimum wage before it goes out to an initiative by the people that may not be well thought out.”
Takko, a former state House member in the 19th District, said the upcoming session would be a learning experience for him in the Senate, as he replaces Brian Hatfield.