Economic recovery topped the list of the priorities of legislators from the 19th and 24th districts at Greater Grays Harbor Inc’s annual legislative sendoff Friday.
What’s known collectively as the Coastal Caucus, the group looked different this year as the 24th had its same slate of Democrats, while the 19th now features all Republicans.
Also attending the Zoom meeting was Congressman Derek Kilmer, who said his focus in D.C. remained economic stability on the Olympic Peninsula, made more unstable by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The most imperative thing is to eradicate this virus, and even once that is done we still have the important task at hand, trying to recover the economy,” said Kilmer. “I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all or miracle cure for that.”
He said he was working on legislation to develop a 10-year federal block grant to provide economic assistance, “so we can have targeted local help to businesses,” and continuing to expand broadband to underserved regions. Kilmer also said he would work on funding for infrastructure projects, including rail separation projects in Aberdeen and Elma. “I am very eager to see Congress move (on an infrastructure program) to put people to work now and lay the groundwork for economic development,” he said.
Greater Grays Harbor CEO Lynnette Buffington moderated the hour-long event, and got each legislator to briefly outline some priorities for the session, which began Monday.
Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, of the 24th District said he was looking at eliminating a state fee that impacts yachts. “I’d like to eliminate that fee so they can stay in port and do more work, spur economic development on yacht building and repair,” he said. He’s also been in talks with a company looking to move into port property and manufacture jet fuel for Delta Airlines from forest material. “If they move here it looks like a significant investment,” said Chapman, who added that in order for such a business to set up shop locally they need to make sure they have enough forest material to meet their needs.
Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, from the 24th, said he’s working on a bill to ban sea bed mining in the state.
“That’s kind of a new economy that goes and essentially sucks up the ocean floor and takes metals out of it, then flushes it back down,” he said. Nobody is currently doing it in the state, but Van De Wege said, “it’s very bad for habitat for crab and detrimental for salmon, so I plan on banning it before it starts.” He also said he is working on measures to control the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, “which has made some unpopular and unwise decisions. One that impacts Grays Harbor is a prohibition on steelhead fishing from boats, which is very unthoughtful and unfortunate, I’m going to try to rein that in and get that fixed.”
Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, said he continues to fight to fund local dental clinics and early learning centers. He also wants to make sure funding sources stay in place for rural hospitals, like Grays Harbor Community Hospital in Aberdeen. “We’ve been able to provide funding for them with a line item to match federal dollars, but there’s a long term need to best provide primary care and specialty services throughout the Grays Harbor area,” he said. “We need to work on this discussion and hopefully have a solution by the end of the biennium.”
Moving to the 19th, Rep. Joel McEntire, R-Cathlamet, said voters in the district said with their votes “whatever has been tried in the last 20-30 years has not been working and we need to go another direction,” after Republicans swept the district in November. McEntire defeated longtime incumbent Democrat Brian Blake. “We’ve got some new faces and I’m looking forward to being part of the solution. If that means working outside the box and working across the aisle, I’m not opposed to working together, as long as they are winning ideas.”
Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said the budget will dominate the session, and he believes the operating budget, which funds a lot of projects, may face some minor cuts, but he believes if the Legislature looks at the massive budget line by line it can be tightened without major cuts and loss of critical programs.
“Some of my colleagues have been pushing for new taxes and increases, the possibility of a state income tax, increases particularly to fuel taxes that might take a few different forms,” said Walsh. “This is the wrong point in time to talk about raising taxes on businesses and working people. We have to be fiscally responsible now more than ever, fund essential services, but we can’t do that by raising taxes on people already suffering.”
Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, unseated Democrat Dean Takko in November. He said “taxes is a naughty word to some extent,” and wanted to remind everyone that “the sky is not falling.” The economic outlook is bleak, but not to the extent that was predicted a few months ago. He said his “number one priority” was to rein in the level of autonomy Gov. Jay Inslee has had in governing by emergency orders.
When asked for ways to help right the economic ship, Van De Wege said, “I think we need to use our rainy day funds and help businesses out, help fund them any way we can,” including a package similar to the federal CARES Act, but at the state level. Wilson agreed that the rainy day fund should be used to help aid local businesses and others negatively impacted by pandemic shutdowns.
Hoquiam Mayor Ben Winkelman submitted a question to the panel about what can be done to streamline the state’s permitting process, referencing the loss of a proposed BHP project at the Port of Grays Harbor, due in part to the complicated and confusing permitting process.
McEntire said he would “absolutely do what is necessary to accelerate permitting.” Wilson said the issue is “on his radar.” Van De Wege said, “We’ve worked on permitting with mixed results in the past,” saying many ideas to streamline the process would simply be vetoed by the governor.