Tharinger, challenger Pruiett talk pandemic response, budget, transportation

The election for the 24th District State Representative seat currently held by incumbent Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, is just weeks away and both he and his challenger, Brian Pruiett, R-Carlsborg, recently talked to the Daily World about their views on school funding, local transportation projects, the state budget, and the state’s pandemic response.

Education funding

As a result of the McCleary state Supreme Court decision, the state Legislature created an education funding model that funds about $10,000 per student across the state. With caps on local levies, property-poor districts like those in Grays Harbor County tend to lag in some programs when it comes to funding.

“In the last biennium we were able to get an additional $61 million for low property value districts to fill in some of those blanks, and we’ve talked about giving back to the districts some levy capabilities, particularly in special education and some of those more challenging and costly parts of their budgets, to let the community step up and pass levies,” said Tharinger.

“The further from the (McCleary) court case we get the more confident we are in filling in some of the gaps and making sure we’re balancing that funding,” said Tharinger.

Pruiett said he thinks there needs to be better accounting of where the recent influx of school funding is going.

“We need to look at where the money is going, where the state spends it, and the end result,” said Pruiett.

He said the end result hasn’t changed with the increased state funding. He said the failure rate is 13-18%, and, “If that’s the center line then there are some obviously suffering much worse. What are we spending our money on and what results are we getting out of that? There’s a substantial amount of room for improvement in the results.”

Budget

COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions have dropped state revenue significantly. The state could be looking at a $4 billion operating budget shortfall in the next biennium.

Tharinger believes programs for the most vulnerable, like the elderly and those with mental health issues, can be maintained at current levels. As far as revenue, Tharinger said, “I think looking at revenue on alcohol and marijuana and tobacco might be a way for us to fill in some of those gaps.”

Tharinger said the state “has a very out of whack revenue structure. It’s real dependent on property and sales taxes, which impacts those on fixed incomes, and it’s impactful for low income people.” He said he’d consider capital gains and income taxes if they are tied to caps on sales and property taxes, which put more of the burden on low income residents.

“For example, right now the sales tax is 8-10% in some places, and property taxes increased based on the McCleary decision,” said Tharinger. “If we bring those down to 3% by adding an income tax or capital gains tax, a more equitable structure, it might make sense.”

“Clearly, we need to re-balance the budget,” said Pruiett. “I’m one of the group last May pestering the incumbents to go to the governor, who locked down all small businesses on the Peninsula but kept big box stores open. That left thousands of families, employees, owners and dependents who lost their income sources.”

He said taxes have increased in the last four years by $16 billion. “This year (the governor) wanted to spend $121 billion, looking at various revenue streams, more taxes.”

Pruiett was critical of the Employment Security Department’s handing of the influx of claims during the pandemic shutdowns.

“That was one of the most ignominious failures in our state,” said Pruiett, “when we spent $70 million on a new computer system, then had $650 million scammed. There are various claims they recovered $400 million — really, have you? And where’s the other $250 million? And there are tens of thousands not getting their unemployment benefits after four months. We have to get good leadership in place.”

Transportation

Both candidates believe the East Aberdeen Rail Separation project is critical to the region and could have a benefit across the state and nationally.

“It’s really important — one, to strengthen the asset of the rail access to the Port, and then the safety of the roadway there,” said Tharinger. The challenge with funding for the project, which would create an overpass to counter the current delays caused by train traffic in the stretch of Highway 12 near Walmart, because of sharp revenue declines in funding sources like the gas tax, sales tax on rental cars and the like during the pandemic. And federal dollars will be needed to supplement a project of that size.

“We need to show the country they need to make investments in infrastructure, and we’re structured well, I think, for that (with the rail separation project),” said Tharinger. “We’ve shown the need.”

Pruiett said he’s had conversations with 19th District Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, “and he and I agree that we need to look at the entire coastline, from the Columbia River to Neah Bay, as one economic zone. There are a lot of shared interests and needs and problems and have the same kind of resources, people being the biggest one.” As for the rail separation project specifically, “We do need to do what we can to facilitate this.”

Pandemic response

Tharinger said the state’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic was good, for the most part. Pruiett said the state was woefully unprepared for it, despite having information that would have made for a better response.

“In 2013 the state passed an emergency management plan (the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan); in that was a 90-page pandemic response and preparation plan,” said Pruiett. “For six years they had the opportunity to fund the supplies needed for a pandemic, and we all saw what happened in March, we didn’t have supplies stockpiled, over 700,000 masks out of date, then thousands of medical personnel getting furloughed, laid off, sent home.”

Pruiett continued, “The bottom line is the governor screwed up when he shut down all the small businesses.” He supports a tax holiday for businesses that were shut down, “a free day for every day they were forced to be closed.”

Tharinger said, “If you look at the data, the number of cases in Washington, and of course we were the first state to have to part these waters, and they are very turbulent waters, I think in general the state’s done a pretty good job. “

The state didn’t get everything right, he said, including shutting down small businesses while big box stores were allowed to remain open — that didn’t make any sense to me,” said Tharinger. Neither did the shut down of residential construction. “But some things they did get right.”

As far as school reopening goes, Tharinger favors local control.

“I think it’s up to the individual school boards. They were elected locally and they know the lay of the land, the class size breakdown,” he said. He said the impact on special education and younger students, kindergarten through third or fourth grade, is higher. “Social interaction is so important, it’s the main thing they get out of those grades,” said Tharinger. “Getting those kids back to a classroom situation, maybe not five days a week, maybe three, is an important target.”

Pruiett said one thing the pandemic has taught us is there is a huge advantage to home schooling. He said he thinks the state should focus on supporting more home schooling overall because the results are better.

“Unfortunately, that leaves our public school systems lacking in enrollment, and I think early childhood learning is one of the most beneficial things we can do for a society,” said Pruiett.

Regulations and economic development

BHP withdrawing its shorelines permit application for a potash facility at the Port of Grays Harbor highlights the need to streamline the permitting process, both candidates indicate.

“BHP did an exceptional job in reaching out to the community as a whole, and then for them not to get resolution or not a clear path, that is a huge disappointment,” said Tharinger. “I’d like to think we don’t have to be in this dilemma, environmental protection and economic development should have a way to fit together.”

Tharinger said Puget Sound projects that are designed specifically to benefit the environment are also having to navigate a gauntlet of permitting requirements. He said a conversation needs to be had to “provide some predictability” to the permitting process.

Pruiett said it’s a complex issue, “but there’s one truth, which is that the process is dragging out too long because too many people are trying to institute too many various regulations and often times they are at odds with each other and don’t conform with the law, and the law must supersede regulations.”

Pruiett has spent much of his life working with environmental impact statements and is familiar with what is involved with the process. He said a lack of adequate science complicates the situation, using the marbled murrelet as an example. Regulation regarding timber harvest to protect the bird cuts off “more lands from timber harvesting, which is a critical renewable resource. If we reduce funds from that income than we have an even deeper issue with funding schools.”