OLYMPIA — State Reps. Kevin Van De Wege and Steve Tharinger fielded questions on subjects ranging from pay for teachers to gun control from residents all over the 24th Legislative District Wednesday night during a telephone town hall meeting.
The hour-long town hall meeting with the Sequim Democrats was open to anyone in the district who owns a land line phone. That includes all of Clallam and Jefferson counties and half of Grays Harbor, and the number was available ahead of time for those who wanted to call in and ask questions. More than 11,000 people ended up listening in, breaking recent records for telephone town hall meetings. The numbers dwindled to a few thousand half-way through the meeting. Notable is that the participation rate for eastern Grays Harbor, which is new for the legislative district since redistricting, was higher than other areas.
Budget questions topped the concerns for many of those who asked questions. The state faces a $900 million shortfall on top of an additional $1 billion that must be found for education to meet the demands of a recent state Supreme Court ruling. Plus, there are demands facing state parks, pay increases for public employees and the increasing cost for services.
“What are we doing to curb the wasteful spending on stuff that doesn’t amount to a whole bunch?” a man named John asked the legislators. “Are we trying to get a handle on this wastefulness?”
Tharinger pointed out that the state has already cut more than $10 billion and reduced the state workforce by more than 14,000.
“There’s always places for more efficiency, but I don’t think there is as much as people imagine,” Tharinger pointed out.
However, Tharinger touted legislation he recently introduced that would cut back on “redundancies and duplicative reporting on litter and solid waste.”
“That will save about $300,000 over two years,” Tharinger said. “There are reports we felt have been done and instead of doing them every two years, we should do them when the governor or Legislature says we ought to do an update.”
Mike in Elma told the legislators he’s a retired teacher and his wife is still teaching. He told the legislators that teachers deserved a pay increase. “Teachers have done an awful lot of sacrifice and giving up,” he said. “It’s time for something to happen.”
Van De Wege, whose wife is a teacher, notes that not only have teachers not gotten a pay increase, but they’ve taken a pay cut. He says he supports, at the very least, restoring the 2008 pay levels.
Mary in Hoquiam told legislators she was concerned about suicide rates among teens on Grays Harbor.
“I know in Hoquiam over the last few years there’s been quite a few student suicides and they really don’t have a setup for bereavement and I really think the schools should be set up for bereavements because my son lost a very good friend and they didn’t really know what to do,” she said.
Tharinger says he’s not really sure if there is a state program that can help, but notes that the county has an active Public Health division and the Hoquiam School District should have trained counselors to help students deal with suicide -related issues.
Another caller pleaded for the legislators to do more to help with unemployment on Grays Harbor. The county has had double-digit unemployment since 2008 and the rate recently increased by 1 percent to 12.4 percent, the second-highest in the state.
“That is a real challenge and across the district we have some of the highest unemployment in the state,” Tharinger said. “It’s a real challenge and as you know in Grays Harbor you are usually the top in unemployment.”
Tharinger and Van De Wege both cited the work at the Port of Grays Harbor and the active rail line that has attracted new businesses to the area, along with improvements made at the Satsop Business Park and the possibility of a new steel pipe manufacturing facility out at McCleary.
Van De Wege cited the importance of Grays Harbor College and talked about a proposed $42 million science and technology building that the legislators are pushing for in the state Capital Budget.
“You have a great community college and a great port facility and both of those are constantly working and revising and drawing jobs in,” Van De Wege said. “They do wonderful work and if we keep creating jobs there we will knock out this high unemployment issue.”
Patrick Wadsworth in Montesano asked Tharinger to explain his support of recent legislation that would increase background checks on those buying guns outside of a gun shop.
“It strengthens the background check system as it applies to anyone who is buying or selling a firearm,” Tharinger said. “I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and this doesn’t infringe on that but it does provide some clarity on the background check process.”
Wadsworth also encouraged the legislators to support an initiative that would require labeling of genetically modified food. The Grays Harbor Democrats recently approved a resolution in support of the initiative.