District’s state legislators face local issues at Town Hall forum

Chapman, Tharinger, Van De Wege travel to Ocean Shores, Forks to discuss recent session

The three state lawmakers from the 24th District traveled to a Town Hall forum in Ocean Shores on March 22 before a crowd of about 80 people who wanted more support for North Beach issues and concerns.

Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, Rep. Steve Tharinger and Rep. Mike Chapman are all from the northern section of the district (Port Angeles and Sequim), and they held town hall forums March 22 at Forks and Ocean Shores to report on the recently completed legislative session in Olympia. The lawmakers, all Democrats, touted the passing of a budget that “invests in education, mental health and jobs,” as well as addressing the state’s constitutional obligation to fund education under the so-called McCleary court decision.

“We have three great representatives. They really truly understand the issues of rural Washington and Ocean Shores,” said Ocean Shores City Councilman Jon Martin in opening remarks. “Geographically, the 24th (District) has to be one of the largest. … I think it’s great that they came all they way out, because I don’t know how many miles it takes to get here.”

Tharinger noted it was about 350 miles from his home round trip to go through Forks, to Ocean Shores, and then back home via Hood Canal. The district includes Clallam, Jefferson and the northern half of Grays Harbor counties.

“We certainly have one of the biggest districts in Western Washington, and probably one of the most diverse,” Tharinger said, noting the crowd in Ocean Shores was larger than the one in Forks.

Ocean Shores Mayor Crystal Dingler noted Chapman is the vice chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, while Tharinger is chair of the House Capital Budget Committee, and Van De Wege, along with memberships on the Appropriations and Helthcare and Wellness committees; and Van De Wege, a former 24th District representative, is chair of the Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee among other assignments.

Chapman highlighted legislation he said he was proud of and that benefited the 24th District: “One is a bill that will help students go to community college on scholarship,” aimed at rural areas. “It’s a public/private partnership,” Chapman said. Employers will put money into a scholarship fund that will be matched by state dollars for industries that are in need of a trained work force, Chapman said. It allows for students to learn skills such as welding. The legislators represent a district in which unemployment continues to be in the 8 percent range, far higher than most other areas in Western Washington.

Chapman also noted he worked on legislation surrounding the issue of a recovery for the marbled murrelet, an endangered seabird that nests in forests along the coast; and supported the drafting of fish farm net pen regulations to provide oversight to determine “what is the role of aquaculture in Washington state.”

Tharinger discussed the specific financial problems facing Grays Harbor Community Hospital and Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles. Four years ago, he helped the hospitals become designated as sole community hospitals.

“They are the only two in the state that have that designation,” Tharinger said, as a mean of increasing their Medicaid reimbursement rates.

“They are still in trouble as you know. Grays Harbor Hospital is challenged partly because of the payer mix — the high Medicaid, Medicare payer mix that doesn’t reimburse them well,” Tharinger said. In addition, there is high demand on the facility. “Quite frankly, it’s a pretty challenging population to provide health care for.”

Tharinger said the reimbursement rate was raised again this past session, from 125 percent to 150 percent, which should help through next June “to be able to figure out a more long-term plan to stabilize rural health care, particularly for Olympic Medical Center and Grays Harbor Hospital.”

“As your folks know, it’s really important to have stable hospitals in rural areas, because they are the platform that delivers a lot of health care,” Tharinger said.

Another key area of concern is boosting rural mental health treatment, addressing it at county and city jails with better evaluation, along with a push for more community mental health clinics. “This is a huge challenge and it’s going to take some time, but we have made on the capital side we have made close to $100 million in investments in the two capital budgets we passed this year, and considerably more on the operating side to provide the professionals to deliver that care.” Tharinger said.

While Ocean Shores and the North Beach did not see any direct funding for legislative requests, such as assistance in addressing coastal erosion issues around the Ocean Shores jetty, Grays Harbor did receive some needed state dollars: $2.5 million for flooding in the North Shore Levee project in Aberdeen, and $4..6 million for Grays Harbor College, as well as some funds for bridge accesses into state lands, and investments in boat launches and fish hatcheries. Van De Wege noted one of his primary goals this year was to “ensure that there is available timber for our mills. One of the biggest concerns we have heard from the mills, which create a lot of great jobs, is that they don’t have enough available timber.” The Legislature enacted language to “make sure that DNR’s fiduciary responsibility to the state is their No. 1 priority,” and passed legislation to put cross-laminated produced timber in the state building code.

“We are going to see a lot more use and incentives with that, and that will be huge from a building standpoint in that it is easier to construct buildings, and also it has great use for our timber,” Van De Wege said of the cross-laminated timber effort.

Questions ranged from problems at the North Beach School District, the clearing of brush as a fire hazard around the dunes, how marijuana tax proceeds are distributed, driving restrictions and regulations on the local beaches, and how to handle problems of homelessness and health care.

The legislators also got a bit defensive what discussing their proposed exemption from state public records and disclosure requirements, Senate Bill 6617, which Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed.

Chapman acknowledged that he read all 24 pages of the bill and then voted for it: “This was not a one-page document. It’s been portrayed as somehow the Legislature in the dead of night just exempted themselves from public disclosure. There were 24 pages of how the Legislature would be accountable to you, the public.”

Chapman said the proposal quoted exemptions found in the state Constitution and federal protections for the legislative process, providing for due process and an open process with open debate. “The process stunk,” Chapman said, and he and Tharinger, among about two-dozen other lawmakers, ended up writing a letter to the governor asking for the veto “over the process.”

“So we will set up a partnership with the press, various stakeholder groups, and legislators over the next year to hopefully come up with a piece of legislation,” Chapman said of what happens after the veto.

District’s state legislators face local issues at Town Hall forum