19th Dist. lawmakers answer questions in a telephone town hall

More than 9,000 residents across the 19th Legislative District listened in Wednesday night during a telephone town hall meeting with state Reps. Brian Blake, Dean Takko and state Sen. Brian Hatfield, who fielded questions on guns, education reform and insurance issues.

The numbers sharply dropped as the hour-long town hall continued, but it was better than last year’s telephone town hall meeting, which drew about 7,500 people to start. The district stretches from Wahkiakum and Cowlitz counties to include all of Pacific County and parts of Lewis and Grays Harbor counties.

Verna McDonald, who runs a senior citizen program in Westport, said she’s seeing an increased need in food banks, as the county’s unemployment rate continues to be one of the highest across the state. McDonald urged legislators to ensure that Coastal Harvest, a food bank distributor based in Hoquiam, receives extra funds this year.

“I’m trying to get support for dollars in the budget to feed the hungry,” replied Blake, D-Aberdeen, who actually sits on Coastal Harvest’s board. “I think that’s critical right now. The demand is so high.”

Hatfield, D-Raymond, points out that there are farms across the state that have extra food. He’d like to connect those farms more with food banks.

“We’ve got the food with surpluses from farms all over this state, it’s a matter of getting it to folks,” Hatfield said.

A woman from Pacific County who identified herself as Marlene said she’s disturbed to see so many school buses in northern Pacific County that are going practically the same route, and yet they represent different school districts. She pointed out that if they all shared a common transportation department, instead of individual school districts, the state could save money.

Hatfield said that’s a cocnern he shares.

And Nancy in Grayland pointed to the “crumbling” Highway 105 between Raymond and Westport.

“It’s our main drag and every time it rains we get huge pockets of rain among everybody’s driveway and it’s beginning to undermine the highway in places,” she said. “We need to fix it before we start seeing the highway crumble.”

Takko, D-Longview, said he knows that highway well, and noted it’s a “problem indicative of all our transportation problems across the state. There’s a lot of money for maintenance on smaller state highways and city and county roads that have been neglected for years.”

“Sometimes it’s a matter of getting culverts cleared out,” Blake added, but he also said getting permission to clear creeks that cause the backup could also be an issue.

Takko noted that a proposed gas tax increase could help solve those problems. The problem will be to get voter support, given high how the gas tax already is.

Two residents told legislators they clearly support the proposed oil export facilities from the Port of Grays Harbor. Three companies have proposed exporting crude oil by rail at the Port.

Christine in Pacific County said that using the ports more make sense given the dwindling natural resources economy. She added that the Port should also consider exporting coal again, an idea that had been shelved in favor of the crude oil export ideas.

“I have been watching the discussion about the use of the Port of Grays Harbor in Aberdeen and the people have rejected the shipment of coal and are now trying to reject the shipment of oil,” added Cathy, who didn’t give a home town. “If we are not going to use that facility, why don’t we close it, along with the rest of the county? We already lead the state in drug abuse, child abuse, domestic violence. If we’re not going to use it, let’s just become the welfare state we already are.”

“I tend to agree with you, Cathy,” Hatfield replied. “Imperium has done quite a bit of work to become an oil exporting facility. I kind of scratch my head at the opponents.”

“The Port has been humming,” Blake said. “… I think we’re going to have to go through a process and make sure it’s done right but we’ve handled oil for decades in Grays Harbor and I think it can be done safely.”

Takko said he is nervous about rail traffic moving through Aberdeen.

“I’ve been over to the Port quite a few times and I’m really impressed with what that Port has done,” Takko said. “Exporting the cars, the grain terminal expansion and, of course, they’re building the 520 Bridge pontoons there and quite a bit of things are going on. I don’t have a problem with exporting oil out of there. The No. 1 problem you have is the train traffic coming through the Aberdeen area and it’s going to be a tough problem. We’re looking at it and I know the Port certainly is, but it’s going to be an expensive thing to try to get the rail situation fixed. It isn’t going to be something that’s going to be fixed soon because it is such an expensive proposition to try to get around Aberdeen to get to the Port.”