The local business community got some face time on Friday morning with Clark County’s lawmakers at the 2018 Legislative Outlook Breakfast to talk about the much-anticipated capital budget, education and workforce training, as well as taxes, regulations and other topics.
Those are all issues lawmakers could face in the 60-day legislative session that begins in January. Nearly all nine legislators from Clark County (Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, was absent) assembled at WareHouse ’23 along with 200 members of the business community and other local elected officials for the annual event hosted by the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, Identity Clark County and the Columbia River Economic Development Council.
John McDonagh, Chamber of Commerce CEO, moderated the event and took written questions from the audience. He said the first four questions all concerned the capital budget, a $4 billion pot of money that would fund construction projects across the state. Passage of the budget was stalled during the last legislative session after Republicans, who controlled the Senate at the time, insisted that the Legislature also address a court case affecting rural water rights.
The Democratic Party retook control of the state Senate in a special election this fall, and Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said the Legislature would likely take action on the capital budget very soon.
“The capital budget is our number one priority,” she said. “All of us recognize the need to address passage of that budget as our first and foremost priority.”
Much of the conversation focused on education and workforce development with McDonagh noting that businesses have a hard time finding qualified workers. McDonagh asked about HB 1509, a bill that was proposed earlier this year, that would allow students flexibility to enroll in career and technical education classes. State Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said she co-sponsored the bill, which was blocked despite bipartisan support.
“We have a few members in leadership in all caucuses that will put their foot on a bill like this one,” said Stonier, adding that she will again push for the bill. “And we will continue peeling them off one by one.”
Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said the educational system needs to recognize that kids learn differently and said he would introduce a bill to “delink” testing requirements for graduation.
“We make education too difficult for kids, we really do,” said Harris.
Legislators also expressed support for career and technical education. When asked about the high cost of education, Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, noted that people entering the workforce can get in-demand skills through technical education without incurring the debt associated with college.
“We have many, many jobs where we need skilled workers but we are churning out college students … by the thousands that are the smartest and greatest baristas in the world,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center. She noted her previous work on funding skills centers and said workforce training efforts will be ongoing.
“We have all these industries out there that aren’t second-rate jobs, that aren’t second-rate industries, that more than provide for a family,” said Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver. “So I think rethinking, you know, what a college education or secondary education is is an institutional change we need to take on.”
But Cleveland said college affordability remains an issue. Stonier also noted that she sponsored HB 1440, which went after “bad actors” in the loan servicing industry. She also said it was significant that the bill became a priority for the American Association of Retired Persons, which she said indicates that access to college has become a generational problem.
“We’ve dug ourselves into a real deep hole and have to start shoveling faster, in my opinion,” she said.