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Dec. 13, 2019

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In Our View: 5 Key Issues for Legislature

I-5 Bridge, transparency, climate change, education, mental health top priorities

The Columbian
Published: January 13, 2019, 6:03am

Budgets, it has been said, are really value statements, representing the priorities of the people involved. So, as the Legislature convenes Monday for a scheduled 105-day session that will include formation of the state government budget for the next two years, we offer some suggestions for delineating those priorities:

• For Southwest Washington lawmakers, a replacement Interstate 5 Bridge should be top of mind. Talks between local officials and Oregon representatives have cautiously started for the first time in five years, and legislators should work to build momentum for those discussions.

Gov. Jay Inslee has recommended funding for an office to oversee the rekindled project, and local lawmakers should find unanimity in supporting that step. Their most important role, however, might be in convincing representatives from throughout the state of the project’s importance and the role a new bridge would play in bolstering the economy. This does not mean that anybody has to commit to the details of a new crossing; it simply means that discussion is required and that other lawmakers must be prepared to jump on board when the time is right.

• Legislators last year thumbed their noses at the public in regard to open government. Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, was the only local lawmaker to oppose a bill that would have kept the public in the dark regarding some legislative emails and schedules; following outcry from citizens and the media, Inslee vetoed the bill. Lawmakers this year must err on the side of transparency and demonstrate that they remember who pays their salaries. They should adopt policies that allow the public to be informed about what their representatives are doing.

• Although voters in November rejected Initiative 1631, which would have imposed a fee on carbon emissions, climate change remains a pressing issue for Washington residents. The effects of a changing climate are readily apparent, and a vast majority of climate scientists have determined that human activity is contributing to those changes.

Claiming that Washington already has low carbon emissions and that the state does not need to take action would amount to a moral failing. The state must take the lead in fighting climate change by reducing emissions and embracing the opportunities provided by a burgeoning green economy. The state should adopt a proposal that has been introduced in Congress — tax polluters and return the money to the public to offset price increases that result from that tax.

• Tweaks will be required for the school funding bill passed last year. Most pressing is that educational leaders say the bill did not adequately fund education for special needs students.

But while some changes will be necessary, lawmakers should avoid the temptation to increase the cap placed on local school levies. That cap was part of a grand bargain to protect taxpayers, and it will take several years to accurately assess its impact.

• The state’s mental health system is in need of an overhaul. A lack of care likely has contributed to the state’s homelessness and opioid crises, and persistent problems at Western State Hospital have been unacceptable. Inslee has proposed reconfiguring the system, moving toward decentralization and focusing on local treatment options. That marks a good starting point for the discussion.

There undoubtedly will be other issues, as well — items we have not thought of or that have yet to come to the forefront. But lawmakers will do well to keep their priorities straight over the next several months.