Local state legislators told business and community leaders on Tuesday that this year’s legislative session has more questions attached to it than answers, and asked for patience until some of it could be figured out.
State Sens. Jim Hargrove and Brian Hatfield, along with state Reps. Kevin Van De Wege, Steve Tharinger, Brian Blake and Dean Takko, fielded questions and gave a reality check on the upcoming session to about 130 attendees during an annual send-off hosted by Greater Grays Harbor Inc. at the Rotary Log Pavilion in Aberdeen on Tuesday.
Up in the air is how legislators will balance next year’s operating budget in the face of 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. Balancing the budget is a challenge in and of itself after the passage of an initiative that requires two-thirds approval for any kind of tax increase or removal of a tax exemption. That likely means more cuts on top of the $11 billion that has already been trimmed the past couple of years, not to mention that the state already has 10,000 fewer employees in that timeframe, Hargrove said.
The budget talk comes as Democratic Gov.-Elect Jay Inslee takes office and a majority of Democrats return to control the state House, but leadership remains in flux at the state Senate, where two Democrats recently bolted to join minority Republicans and crafted a new “majority coalition.”
For about two weeks, Sen. Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, was slated to be the chairman of the Senate Ways & Means Committee, a powerful position that would have put him in charge of writing the state budget. But with the leadership shift, he says it’s more likely that he’ll end up as ranking member of the committee.
Hatfield, D-Raymond, noted that the coalition is offering to have Democrats chair some committees, including the one he’s chaired the past few years focusing on agriculture and rural economic development.
“Some of my colleagues think we should just be in the minority and live in the minority without chairing any kind of committee, but if they’re offering to let us chair committees, I say let’s take them up on their offer,” Hatfield said. “That doesn’t mean I’ll bolt over and join the coalition or vote with them. … But it puts us in a better position. The truth is, though, we won’t know what happens with the Senate until that first week in session.”
Takko said he thought that many of the moderates in the House may also have been voted out of office this past year, leaving more liberals and conservatives in the wings, which could present its own set of issues to get a budget deal through.
Jim Daly, a Marine veteran, told local legislators that he loves Lake Sylvia State Park and asked for more support to ensure that state parks don’t close.
“I’d like to know what you can do to maintain, sustain and keep our state parks open that are so important to Grays Harbor County,” Daly said.
Van De Wege, D-Sequim, said that he’s taken a personal interest in the state parks system and closing parks is the last thing he wants to see happen. That said, he noted that the state’s Discover Pass, which charges $30 annually to access the park system and other public land, has not been selling very well, even with changes made to it allowing more transferability between cars.
“One of the things we’ll grapple with this session is putting more state general fund dollars in (for parks), which will be hard to get, so we can make sure state parks stay open,” Van De Wege said.
But Hargrove painted a grim picture for state parks, noting that he’s heard rumblings from Republicans in particular that even more money should be taken away from parks.
“Just to give you a better idea of what we’re facing — the public has voted to take away the tax increases we put in place four years ago; there’s a two-thirds requirement on any new tax increases in the future; the courts have said we (eventually) have to fund $6 billion more in education; we have state union contracts that we can’t break by law; we have made cuts to home care and other areas that the courts have said we can’t cut and put back in so the Legislature’s margin for dealing with these issues are very, very thin.” Hargrove explained. “The point is: the margins are very tight and we’re doing the best we can with both hands tied behind our backs and a blindfold on.”
Takko, D-Longview, noted that there are also priorities on health care services for the needy, education and sustaining basic programs for the poor.
“Plus, to put it in perspective, we used to fund higher education at 70 percent and the students paid 30 percent, and now it’s just the opposite. They pay 70 percent and we pay 30 percent,” Takko said. “And we used to fund a great portion of Fish & Wildlife out of the operating budget, instead of through fees and fines, and now that’s flip-flopped. So, I feel your pain, as the old saying is, but everybody is feeling the same pain. I use parks a lot and I really want to support them, but I hope you can understand the situation we’re in.”
Van De Wege said that he is going to push a marine tourism bill that may very well help the Westport Shipyard. Van De Wege said that yachts and other craft that stay in a port longer than 60 days are required to pay additional taxes. He said that’s preventing companies like Westport Shipyard from servicing some of the marine vessels that could take a couple months to fix, plus it drives away tourists that may want to stay in local waters and experience the summer here, but then leave during the winter.
Hatfield agreed more should be done to help the tourism industry, noting that the state has “dropped the ball on tourism these past few years” and is not spending a penny to get visitors into the state.
Van De Wege also said he also hopes to find traction to renew a tax incentitive slated to expire in June to help the biomass industry, including local mills.
Tharinger, D-Sequim, noted that he and other local legislators helped fight off proposed cuts to critical access hospitals like Mark Reed in McCleary and Willapa Harbor Hospital in South Bend, which are hospitals that get higher reimbursement rates from the state. This year, however, he said it could be a challenge to maintain the reimbursement rate for community hospitals like Grays Harbor Community Hospital in Aberdeen.
“It’s going to be a challenge to maintain their reimbursement rate so they can stay solvent,” Tharinger said.
Tharinger said he’s also serving on a newly convened House Finance Committee and will explore ways to fund state government “into the 21st Century.”
“We need to get off this roller coaster of funding stuff, cutting stuff and funding stuff,” he said.
Hargrove said that as the state gives more money to education, it should focus the funds more on particular issues rather than “just throw money at it all” spread across every program. For instance, he says the state ought to do more to help youth with behavioral issues, which could help free up teachers to spend less time dealing with students with mental health issues and more time with students that need help understanding the curriculum.
Blake, D-Aberdeen, said that he will be paying close attention to funds allocated to help the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority along with $47 million slated to go to Grays Harbor College for a new building.
“I also want to see more investment across the river,” Blake said, pointing to the old Weyerhaeuser property which has been largely inactive since the mill closed nearly five years ago. The Grays Harbor Historical Seaport has taken an interest in the waterfront property and Blake has helped the group navigate some potential permit issues, although everything remains up in the air.
Legislators also lamented the Coastal Caucus’ loss of the 35th Legislative District, which no longer includes part of Grays Harbor after redistricting. State Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, is one of of the two senators joining Republicans in their new majority coalition. “To date, the worst thing about not having Grays Harbor in the 35th Legislatie District is not having Tim Sheldon here to interact with us today,” Van De Wege said. “That would have been interesting.”