The race for 19th District State Representative, Position 2, a rematch of the 2018 general election between incumbent Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, and challenger Joel McEntire, R-Cathlamet, promises to be a tight one.
In the primary, which was moot from the standpoint that each candidate was guaranteed a spot in the general election, McIntire easily outpolled the incumbent, by a margin of 53.2%-44.6%.
Education funding, a tight budget and the state’s pandemic response were among the questions the Daily World put to both candidates as ballots are arriving in mailboxes across the district.
Both candidates think there is room for improvement in the funding of rural schools.
McEntire said he thinks the current funding per pupil model, about $11,000 per student, “seems fair,” and that he isn’t committed one way or the other to the current “prototypical school model” used for the distribution of state education funds.
“The question is, does it need to be abolished or do we just tweak it here and there,” he said, adding he’d like to look at the proposals that are out there and find one that “is more equitable for the rural schools.”
McEntire is troubled by student achievement rates that haven’t improved since the state began fully funding K-12 education.
“We spend an awful lot of money for very little return,” said McEntire. “We’ve doubled the amount between 2008 and 2018 that we spend on schools and we have seen an absolutely flat line on student achievement, so there is definitely something wrong, and the thought we could throw more money at it to fix the problem doesn’t seem to be the case.”
Blake said he doesn’t think the prototypical school model is perfect, “but at this point there are some deficiencies. The state has an obligation with the federal government to meet local school districts’ needs on special needs students, and I think that should have been baked better into the basic education model.”
Bottom line, “I think we’ve got to find a way to keep ourselves from getting into a McCleary 2 situation,” said Blake, meaning another court case driving the state’s funding of schools, and there needs to be a clear way to keep the overall burden of school funding from falling on local sources like levies and bonds.
A revenue shortfall in the billions is facing the state budget, and it will be a big part of the upcoming 2021 legislative session.
“I don’t think taxes will be necessary,” said Blake, to make up the shortfall. “I think the economy is fundamentally sound and growing, we’re just going to have to prioritize things in the budget that we craft this next spring.”
He said the governor’s exercise earlier in the pandemic, asking state agencies to explore across the board cuts, could help the Legislature address the budget shortfall.
“You can take that information and then say, what are our priorities,” said Blake. “And I think it’s helpful to give the Legislature information about what the agency priorities are, and we can look to see if those match legislative priorities.”
McEntire said the foundation of the economy needs to be addressed, providing some revenue the state can count on.
“A tax increase might fix the budget (in the short term) but in the long run it’s just making it harder for businesses to set up shop and continue on and be prosperous,” he said. “I’m looking for an environment in which companies can thrive.”
He thinks Boeing moving its 737 production out of state is just the beginning of an exodus of businesses from the state.
“If we put regulatory and tax burdens on these companies we make them move elsewhere and keep small businesses from opening up,” said McEntire. “If we do have to make up a budget shortfall in the short term it shouldn’t come as a tax increase.”
He said he wouldn’t shut the door on the possibility of across the board cuts, including lawmakers’ salaries. “That’s how serious I am. If we need to tighten the belt then that means everybody.”
Blake said money the Legislature has made available for transportation infrastructure programs like the East Aberdeen rail separation project and a similar grade separation project in Longview have put both in position to receive federal infrastructure improvement funds.
“It’s all about communication,” said Blake. “We’re in touch with our Congressional delegation and our local elected officials, and we have a Port Commission that is engaged.”
McEntire said there are “a lot of fingers in this pie,” with state, federal and local entities involved with the East Aberdeen project.
“If we’re going to make it work we have to get everybody on board,” said McEntire, showing that investment in the region would be beneficial to funding sources outside the region. That could be a hard sell with the way things currently stand with the area’s loss of blue collar jobs and homelessness and addiction issues, he said.
“We have to turn around Aberdeen to show the state and nation that their investment dollars are going to pay dividends for the state and nation, not just for us,” said McEntire. “It’s not a build it and they will come situation,” the region must make improvements that will attract development, not count on development to spur those improvements.
“It’s not a secret I disapproved strongly of the governor’s reaction” to the COVID-19 pandemic, said McEntire. “It wasn’t an overreaction or under reaction, but once he started saying essential versus non-essential, right there he lost me. There’s nothing non-essential about anyone’s livelihood.”
He continued, “Unemployment is not what people want. People don’t want to rely the government. Some do, but most of the good people in our community are not in the business of looking at the government for help. They are looking at being productive.”
He said there’s no end in sight to the governor’s control over the actions of people and businesses.
“The governor can say as long as there is a virus particle in the environment floating around he’s going to keep people safe and declare an emergency,” said McEntire. “It’s a real usurpation of emergency power that is dangerous.” He’s for legislative action that would limit these types of emergency powers to a short period of time before requiring legislative support.
“I think the early support was good,” said Blake. He said hundreds of millions in relief were approved before the end of session.
“As the months have gone by I have concerns that it’s been too top-heavy with not enough communication with industry sectors and local governments,” said Blake. “We were able to correct some of that,” particularly modifying some of the restrictions the governor put on agritourism “that were not well thought out and needed some tweaking.” He also said Fish and Wildlife did its part communicating with local coastal governments to allow for the opening of razor clam digs this fall.
Both candidates agree when it comes to reopening schools that local districts and health officials should have more control. “I believe in local say and the individual’s rights to to be able to determine risk and rewards,” said McEntire. Blake said his role isn’t “directing schools, but helping schools determine what they need during this time of pandemic and helping those districts obtain those needs.
Environment and regulations
The lack of cohesive environmental permitting in the state had a spotlight shone on it with the withdrawal of BHP’s proposal to establish a potash shipping facility at the Port of Grays Harbor earlier this year. Both candidates were asked what they thought of the current state of environmental concern and its impact on economic development.
“I think we’ve created a system that is not working well, and I think there have been failures the last few years by the Department of Ecology to get politics out of the process,” said Blake. “The Legislature has some work to do to restore confidence in the regulatory process.”
He added, “Some of these big projects take time, and I think it’s important that they do take time, but when a project like this decides to go elsewhere, that’s a problem.”
“The Department of Ecology is hamstringing projects,” said McEntire, not just in Hoquiam, but others in Kelso and Kalama, and beyond. “I’m not against permitting, but how in the world does it take so long?”
McEntire has a degree in evolutionary ecology, “So this is in my wheelhouse. You can’t BS me on this. I know hyperbole when I hear it and understand how statistics are being used. So my plan is to be able to have the Department of Ecology experience some more accountability in the Legislature, to be able to reign it in a bit. It’s so independent, it doesn’t answer to anybody, much less the voters. It’s been an expansion of their powers which has gone unchecked. They have outgrown their original charter, which was to inform cities and counties on the facts. Now it’s a police agency that will come and stop you when you want to build. The scales are out of whack.”