Grays Harbor legislators address local concerns in annual ‘Send-Off’

Greater Grays Harbor Inc. hosted its annual Coastal Caucus Legislative Send-Off on Friday, Jan. 7, with lawmakers from the 19th and 24th Legislative Districts, as well as U.S. Representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA06).

Legislators shared their priorities for the upcoming session and addressed specific issues affecting Grays Harbor County. While the event was originally scheduled for an in-person return, it was moved to a virtual format due to concerns over rising COVID-19 cases.

Attendees included 19th Legislative District Representatives Jim Walsh (R) and Joel McEntire (R), and Senator Jeff Wilson (R). While 24th Legislative District Senator Kevin Van De Wege (D) was unable to attend, Representatives Steve Tharinger (D) and Mike Chapman (D) were present.

Educational resources were a top priority for the area’s representatives, as McEntire shared a bill that he prefiled on Wednesday, Jan. 5, to address construction and modernization constraints at small school districts.

“The model we have right now has a critical flaw: we’re expected to fund new construction and modernization projects through bonds. There are communities that have a lot of trouble passing bonds, and they find themselves between a rock and a hard place,” said McEntire.

House Bill 1775 calls for the state to provide a more equitable learning environment for all students in Washington by introducing a new grant program to provide the necessary funds for small school districts that struggle to raise adequate funds for modernization projects. Tharinger worked with McEntire on the bill, and Chapman submitted as a co-sponsor to the bill during the Send-Off.

Infrastructure was also a major point of discussion as Kilmer shared how bills passed last year by Congress, particularly the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, may affect Grays Harbor County. Tharinger, who serves as Chair of the House Capital Budget Committee, believes the state is poised to address some of its lingering transportation concerns due to the flow of federal funds to Washington state.

“This is a very interesting supplemental year, and things are quite fluid, partially because of some of the work that Derek has done in Washington,” he said. “We want to make sure that we’ve got some money aside so we can match some of these programs: whether that’s in things like road construction, culverts, or environmental recovery.”

According to Tharinger, the state has historically lacked sufficient funding to meet all of its transportation needs. Walsh, who serves on the House Transportation Committee, believes there are opportunities to better fund these projects by moving money between budgets. Vehicle sales tax money, for example, currently flows into the operating budget, but could be diverted specifically to the transportation budget to address demand.

Walsh also hopes to focus the transportation budget away from projects, such as bike lanes, in order to address core transportation issues like road maintenance. Spurred by recent fatalities of road maintenance workers, Wilson hopes to amend the “Slow Down, Move Over” law to make the roads safer for those who work alongside them.

Members of the Grays Harbor community that attended the Send-Off were particularly concerned about maintenance along Route 109. A landslide occurred Thursday evening, Jan. 6, that closed Route 109 near mile post two following several days of heavy rain and ground saturation. The section of road, located near the westbound entrance to Hoquiam, has previously experienced landslides and tree falls during major weather events.

“There’s some risks and challenges we face living on the Peninsula because of the geology and the weather,” said Tharinger in response to how local legislators may address this issue in the upcoming session.

According to data shared by Greater Grays Harbor CEO Lynette Buffington, a boom in growth in Ocean Shores has led to steady traffic increases in the North Beach area, with Ocean Shores experiencing record-breaking traffic nearly every month.

Chapman was hesitant to endorse a gas tax increase that would help fund transportation projects, such as addressing the hillside in Hoquiam.

“It’s a tradeoff. It will depend on what new projects come in, and our revenues are down because people are driving less,” he said. “We have more projects than we’ll ever be able to fund, and more than the public will be willing to pay taxes for.”

Access to broadband internet, building affordable housing, and constraining the emergency powers of Gov. Jay Inslee were some of the additional priorities identified by local legislators for the upcoming session. The short session will convene in Olympia on Jan. 10 and adjourn on March 10.