State Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said that he was sad about the teachers strikes that held up the first day of school for multiple districts in Southwest Washington. Teachers took to the picket lines this summer to demand raises they say were guaranteed to them under new education funding allocated by the Legislature.
Harris had a key role in negotiating that education funding package. In an interview with The Columbian’s Editorial Board, Harris stood by it, calling it “excellent legislation” that satisfied a state Supreme Court mandate that lawmakers fully fund basic education.
He said that on the last day of the 2018 legislative session, the House passed SB 6362, which modified the funding package and changed the salary allocation model.
“All the Republicans voted ‘no,’ all the Democrats voted ‘yes,’ and thus we had teachers strikes because we had more money going into the system this year,” he said.
Harris said that education funding is now 52 percent of the state budget. He said that “we are compensating teachers fairly,” and he’s ready to move on to other issues.
Damion Jiles, an Army veteran who is challenging Harris, said that it was a “travesty” that the court decision even had to be made. He said that it should’ve been a requirement that the money be specifically dedicated to salaries for teachers, whom he said shouldn’t have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.
“A sign of a flourishing society is one that is educated,” said Jiles, a Democrat. “I feel that education should be one of the top priorities in any given state.”
In addition to education funding, the candidates also discussed transportation, gun control, climate change and mental health.
Both candidates support replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge. Both also agreed that there needs to be other infrastructure investments in addition to the bridge to address congestion.
Harris said he worked on legislation intended to restart talks with Oregon about replacing the bridge. The legislation created a commission, comprised of Oregon and Washington legislators, to discuss the bridge. Harris said that he expects Oregon to come to the table.
“I believe there is a lot of good that has taken place,” he said.
Jiles said that he favored light rail, saying that he used to take it to commute to a job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He said that after replacing the bridge, third and fourth crossings should be built. Harris said he didn’t support light rail and instead supported bus-rapid transit on the new bridge.
Both candidates opposed Oregon’s plans to place tolls, or value pricing, on a stretch of Interstate 5 that would affect Washington commuters. Harris said he’s spoken against it. He said he, along with other lawmakers, signed a letter opposing the plan to a policy committee.
“Legislatively, I believe a little bit more could be done or should be done than simply writing a letter,” said Jiles.
Both candidates also expressed reservations about Initiative 1639, a gun-control initiative that will appear on the November ballot.
“Do I agree with gun control? Absolutely,” said Jiles, who said he supported background checks. He added, “However, I don’t believe in legislating the ownership of firearms away from the people.”
He said that he had concerns about some of the language of the initiative and worried it could end up harming some citizens. He also took issue with how it would classify some firearms as “assault rifles,” a term he said is meaningless.
“I think it’s a flawed initiative that ended up on our ballot, which is tragic to me,” said Harris.
He said that the initiative was sponsored as a way to make schools safer. But he questioned if gun control would address school safety.
Harris said that addressing mental health in schools would be far more effective. He said that there should be more school counselors and mental health services for students.
Both opposed the idea of arming teachers.
Both candidates said they believe in man-made climate change and want to protect the environment. But neither candidate said they support Initiative 1631, an initiative that will appear on the November ballot that seeks to place a fee on carbon emissions.
Harris said he opposes the measure. He said it will increase utility rates for Clark County ratepayers because of a gas-fired plant owned by Clark Public Utilities.
“It’s a very convoluted system that I believe will hurt the most vulnerable in our community,” said Harris.
Jiles said he was still researching the initiative but wanted Washington to be a “green state.”
“Is taxation the way to make that happen? I don’t think it is,” he said.
Both candidates agreed that it will take more than money to fix Western State Hospital, the state’s largest psychiatric facility that has been plagued by safety and health issues.
Harris said that after replacing the bridge, mental health is his second most important issue. He said that it could take a billion dollars to fix the problems at Western State Hospital and that he’d like to see more regionalization in the delivery of mental health services.
“It’s more than just a legislative issue or a budgetary issue,” said Jiles. “This is a people issue; this is a management issue.”
Harris agreed, citing staff shortages.
“We have to entice people to come and work at (Western State Hospital),” said Harris.