Area legislators see salmon stocks as major regional issue this session

The six state legislators who represent districts that include Grays Harbor and Pacific counties addressed issues Friday faced by the Twin Harbors at the annual Legislative Sendoff sponsored by Greater Grays Harbor Inc.

Although they offered few specific proposals with the Legislature scheduled to start its 2019 session in Olympia on Jan. 14, the lawmakers did pledge to help restore fish hatcheries and continue to expand broadband services for rural communities.

Grays Harbor County Commissioner Randy Ross, also a longtime member of the Greater Grays Harbor board, noted that all the lawmakers gathered Friday at the Aberdeen Rotary Log Pavilion know the issues of the area well.

“But we need you, the rest of the public and the citizens to know that the county has budget challenges too, and we need the support of everyone of you in the Legislature,” Ross said in challenging the state lawmakers to help with responsibilities now being pushed onto counties.

“All of those things cost money, and we have some critical needs in the county,” Ross said, noting Grays Harbor is now spending up to $1.5 million a year on indigent defense costs, which is a state-mandated requirement. Jail medical costs also have gone up about $500,000, along with other jail requirements, as well as the ongoing problem of not enough funds or resources to deal with an ongoing mental health crises.

“All you have to do is drive though the cities of Aberdeen, Hoquiam and Cosmopolis, and it’s very clear here, but it’s everywhere in the county where you have a homeless population that needs to be dealt with,” Ross said.

While state revenues for cities and counties rise only 1 percent a year under state requirements, expenses go up 4-5 percent, and most of those come from unfunded state mandates, Ross said.

“So we ask for help from our legislators … please keep county government in mind,” Ross said as a prelude to the formal presentations by the state representatives and senators.

They included one Republican, Rep. Jim Walsh of the 19th District, and five Democrats: Sen. Dean Takko, 19th District; Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, 24th District, Reps. Steve Tharinger and Mike Chapman, both from the 24th District; and Rep. Brian Blake of the 19th District.

Ocean Shores City Councilman Jon Martin and former state Sen. Jim Hargrove moderated the sendoff.

“We have representatives that may not agree with you or that may have a different perspective, or may tell you in reality that they can’t get something done. But every one will take time to listen to whatever the issues are. And I think we are very fortunate to have this group representing us, because they really understand Grays Harbor,” Martin said.

This session, Hargrove said, the Legislature is faced with a choice of either finding new sources of revenue or finding ways to cut because of the state’s commitment to fully fund K-12 public education. “I just want to let you know how hard a job it is, and how hard they work,” said Hargrove.

Takko, from Longview, noted that revenue statewide is up with the prosperity experienced in the major population areas of the state, while problems associated with homelessness and mental health still continue to grow as well. He also suggested the Legislature will have to revisit the school-funding issues caused last fall when many districts faced labor strife over the new statewide funding solution to deal with the overriding court order to fully fund local schools.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but something has to be done so we don’t have to go through what happened last fall,” Takko said.

With proposals for potential increases in the business and occupation tax or capital gains tax, most of the lawmakers questioned whether anything would have the votes, despite the Democrats now holding a 29-21 majority in the state Senate, and a 57-41 majority in the House.

Democrat Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed a 2019-2021 biennial budget that includes new investments in clean energy, behavioral health, orca recovery, as well as education and broadband investments.

“The governor, in his budget, he threw everything against the wall,” Takko said. “So it will be interesting to see what sticks.”

Although the lawmakers did not decry the need to aid in orca recovery, they questioned why the issue of rebuilding the salmon populations that are dwindling and exacerbating whale health issues have not been addressed sooner.

“The big issue is salmon and orcas,” Van De Wege said. “We will be working on increased hatchery production, looking at pinniped (seal) reduction, things like that.”

Van De Wege, from Sequim, also said he would work on legislation aimed at reducing wildfires in the state, such as using more prison inmates to fight fires as a cost-effective method.

Blake, a forester, is chairman of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee for the House. He noted that other salmon-restoration projects such as improved Department of Transportation culverts at stream crossings need to continue to improve fisheries.

“The orca issue has come up in the news recently, and it’s a little frustrating because we have cut hatchery production for various reasons. … We have been losing fishermen and fishing families. There wasn’t much notice of that, but we lost an orca calf, and it became headline news,” Blake said. “Saving this resident killer whale population is important, but investing in our fishing communities is also important.”

Blake noted the governor’s budget does include $75 million for hatchery upgrades, and it also includes about $25 million for culvert improvements, Tharinger said.

Tharinger, also from Sequim, is chairman of the House Capital Budget Committee and is a key member of the Health Care Committee, and he vowed to continue to help Grays Harbor Community Hospital specifically and on rural health issues in the Twin Harbors overall.

“How do we maintain access, how do we maintain our hospital, how do we maintain our clinics? That’s a challenge because of our reimbursement rates and our payer mix,” Tharinger said. He encouraged more funding for behavioral and mental-health treatment, saying it will make other “issues easier to manage, like affordable housing and homlessness, and our criminal justice system.”

“That’s going to be a big focus of our work on both the operating side and the capital side,” Tharinger said.

Another proposal he mentioned was having a state requirement to use cross-laminated timber in new school construction as a way to boost the newer coastal timber product, which the state helped establish.

“Creating that product and the need for that product is one of things I can do with the capital budget,” Tharinger said as a way to “jump-start” the timber industry.

The importance of expanding broadband connections in the more rural areas of Western Washington also was highlighted by Tharinger.

“You hear about the creative economy, where people if they have the right broadband can live anywhere,” he said. “And the amenities of living here without the traffic, and all of the quality of life you have here in the Harbor, if you had that broadband capacity, we can generate those kind of jobs.”

Walsh, also on the Capital Budget committee with Tharinger, said he has “come to believe that the capital budget is a great tool for economic development, infrastructure and building out around the state.”

“I was frankly a little skeptical because I thought there would be a lot of fat there. But there’s not. I like the way the capital budget operates. You can use it as a scalpel to get good projects funded, and I think we have seen that in the last couple of years in this area.” Walsh listed the Westport Marina dredging project as well as a gazebo for Lake Sylvia as examples.

Walsh will now be the ranking minority member on the State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee, where he vowed he will continue to “shine a light on how our state government agencies operate, how they spend the money we give them and how efficiently and effectively do good policy for the people of this state.”

Chapman, also from Clallam County, pledged to continue working to advance bipartisan legislation to encourage rural business development and other issues for the community as a whole.

“If there is one thing the six of us should take out of this, it’s that every decision, we should answer the question: Will this benefit the community we serve and will it help grow the economy in rural Washington? I think that is our task.”