Clark County legislators will debate a number of divisive topics during a short but intense 60-day session of the Legislature that starts Monday.
Bipartisan consensus may emerge on domestic violence and vaping, but battle lines already have been drawn on sex education, climate change and fallout from Initiative 976’s limits on car tab fees.
Democratic legislators from the 49th Legislative District fall in line with their party and Gov. Jay Inslee. Republican legislators from the 17th and 18th legislative districts are fairly united in their opposition.
Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, may come the closest to providing a swing vote among the nine legislators representing most of the county. The sprawling 14th and 20th legislative districts also take in slices of east and north Clark County.
Clark County’s delegation primarily consists of Republicans, but Democrats enjoy comfortable statewide majorities in the House and Senate.
Here are seven issues to watch during the session.
Battle Ground Public Schools was scheduled to adopt a custom sex ed curriculum in October. Instead, the school board eliminated requirements for teachers to address the topic, except for lessons on puberty and human development. The board later revised that policy, allowing teachers in high school electives to address topics that overlap with sexual health education.
Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, and Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, chair of the House Education Committee, will sponsor legislation mandating comprehensive sex education. Washington is one of 21 states that do not mandate sex ed, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, was a frequent attendee at Battle Ground school board meetings and frames the issue as a matter of “parents’ rights.” Even with an opt-out clause in upcoming legislation, Kraft said there are no assurances that students won’t be exposed to sex ed.
Other Republicans, although not nearly as outspoken as Kraft, argue that local school boards, not state legislators, should decide.
“If the system is not broken, then why fix it?” asked Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver. “Does that mean the system is broken or the school board listened to its voters?”
“I’m opposed to mandatory sex education,” Rep. Larry Hoff, R-Vancouver, said. “I believe it works to take parents out of the equation.”
Harris, however, urged his Republican colleagues to keep an open mind.
“I hope the Republicans haven’t said ‘no’ because Monica hasn’t even finalized the bill,” he said. “I hope my constituents would agree with me that I should read the bill first before I pass judgment.”
Stonier said she is trying to incorporate input from constituents and school districts in developing a bill that will garner bipartisan support. At the same time, she decried Republican “talking points” based on misinformation, adding that she would not support a bill without an opt-out provision.
“The idea that we are trying to block parents from being the first teachers of their children is absolutely incorrect,” she said.
Stonier declined to name another local Republican lawmaker, aside from Harris, who she thought would support her legislation.
Two days before Thanksgiving, Tiffany Hill was shot and killed by her estranged husband outside a Hazel Dell elementary school, a tragedy that could spur changes to state law regarding electronic monitoring and bail for those accused of domestic violence.
Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, said she previously sponsored Senate Bill 5149, requiring electronic monitoring of domestic violence perpetrators so their victims would receive real-time notification should their abusers come into close proximity. She intends to rename the bill “the Tiffany Hill Act” to highlight that such a law might have prevented Hill’s death.
“I was recently told that he, her estranged husband, was sitting there for quite some time,” Wilson said. “Knowing that he was being watched, he might have not shown up at all.”
Tiffany Hill told authorities she feared for her life and reported a series of incidents that started with her husband’s Sept. 11 arrest for domestic violence. He was out on bail when he killed his wife in front of their three children.
Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said she will try to tighten state law regarding bail, but she acknowledged it could be difficult because of bail provisions in the state constitution.
“I’m going to try, because I think it’s ludicrous that someone who was so clearly dangerous was out on bail,” Wylie said. “It’s possible we could get something done, but it’s probable that this will start a conversation that we need to have.”
Overall, lawmakers appear more receptive to electronic monitoring.
“I understand the details of Sen. Wilson’s legislation, and I will support that,” Hoff said. “Having the ability to post bail is one of the rights, one of the constitutional rights, we have in Washington, so we have to be careful there.”
Wilson, who saw her father repeatedly abuse her mother when she was a child, said there are “cracks” in the system and advocates getting people together to discuss what can be done with bail and other aspects of domestic violence following the session.
“I’m not someone to do something just to do something,” she said. “I would rather do it right.”
Lawmakers will grapple with waiting until I-976’s constitutionality is resolved or taking action to incorporate $30 car tabs into state law.
Fifty-three percent of voters statewide and 61 percent in Clark County supported I-976. The measure passed in 33 of 39 counties, with voters rejecting it in Jefferson, Island, King, San Juan, Thurston and Whatcom counties.
On Nov. 27, King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson blocked I-976 from taking effect because of “substantial concerns” about the ballot title.
Republicans are leaning toward taking legislative action now, despite the court case, and Democrats are more willing to wait until the challenge plays out.
“I think it would be irresponsible to ignore a branch of our government like the courts,” Stonier said.
Republicans offer a different perspective.
Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said “hiding behind the courts” is not the correct course, adding that her constituents want legislators to respect their vote.
“Let’s stop fooling around with this,” she said. “They are asking us to do the job they have sent us there to do, and that is to make hard choices and make their lives better with the dollars they have given us.”
Democrats want to sort through the financial implications of I-976.
“What I’m focused on is ensuring we continue to address our aging infrastructure,” Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said.
Harris said he supports codifying $30 car tabs in state law but differs with other Republicans in recognizing the transportation shortfall.
“I still believe (we) want good roads,” he said. “If it’s not car tabs, how do we do it?”
Republicans generally support one proposal to free up some money. Wilson said she will co-sponsor legislation to use sales taxes collected on vehicle sales for transportation projects.
Inslee has unveiled a series of climate-related proposals including limiting greenhouse gas emissions, establishing clean fuel standards, increasing the availability of zero-emission vehicles, and extending a tax incentive for community solar projects.
Cleveland said she will examine each proposal in detail, but she supports the governor’s approach.
“We have to do our part,” she said. “The onus is on states right now to take leadership because at the federal level, there hasn’t been the leadership.”
Wylie said she recently installed solar panels on her home’s roof and purchased a hybrid car.
“I’m supportive of every piece we can get done,” Wylie said. “This is the major threat to our world.”
Among local Republican law makers, Kraft took the strongest position.
“No, I don’t believe we need any legislation regarding climate change, carbon emissions, none of it,” she said. “It just destroys the business community.”
Other Republicans say they believe climate change is real and humans have contributed to it, but they aren’t ready to back Inslee’s proposals and prefer legislation that offers incentives, not penalties.
“There is no doubt in my mind that climate is changing,” Rivers said. “To say that we, as humans, haven’t had something to do with it but to ignore the fact that Washington is already a leader, I think is ridiculous.”
Harris said wildfires contribute to climate change and should be given more attention, instead of proposals that will make electricity more expensive for SEH America, WaferTech and other local companies.
“I want people to think about where these employers will end up if we continue to make it difficult for them, or more costly, to operate in our state,” he said.
Stonier said she understands there can be reasonable debate over how far and how fast the state should act on climate change.
“Whether you believe in climate change or not, it’s amazing to me that people don’t recognize the need to keep our environment clean and clear of poisons,” she said.
Inslee last month unveiled another package of proposals to spend more than $300 million over the next three years in hopes of reducing the state’s homeless population by 50 percent. To come up with the money, the governor proposes to tap the state’s emergency budget reserve, often called the rainy day fund, a provision that most local Republicans don’t support.
“The governor has a different understanding of what the rainy day fund has been established for,” Hoff said. “One of these days, our economy is going to turn, and there may be a true need for a rainy day fund as it was designed for.”
Harris said he agrees with Inslee’s proposal but not its funding source.
“I am not a big fan of one-time money,” he said. “What are we going to do next year and the year after?”
Cleveland offered a similar view.
“The rainy day fund is meant for those times when we face unexpected economic hardship and downturn,” she said. “I am not saying that homelessness is not an emergent issue and an epidemic we face, but we have to be careful in what funding we use because it needs to be sustainable.”
Legislative leaders said Thursday they don’t believe there will be enough votes to tap the budget reserve. Inslee said he was open to considering other options, as long as they do not siphon money from schools, mental health and opioid services.
“It’s a crisis right now,” Inslee said about the state’s homeless population. “Bring people inside. That ought to be the goal of the state of Washington.”
Several local Republicans say that solutions need to be developed at the local, not state, level.
“I don’t think throwing more money at the issue is going to solve the problem,” Wilson said. “Rules and regulations that hinder the ability for builders to build are a big issue.”
Rivers said the state has spent $10 billion to $12 billion on homeless programs during the past 11 years.
“And our problem is worse than ever,” she said.
Partisan divisions might be the most pronounced when it comes to Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s proposal to ban assault weapons.
“Assault weapons exist to kill people,” Cleveland said, noting that her grandparents owned a sporting goods store in Cowlitz County and her father was an avid hunter.
“We did better when they were banned,” Wylie said.
Local Republicans are vehemently opposed to the proposed ban.
“All these laws are supposed to affect the actions of criminals,” Wilson said. “And criminals, by definition, don’t comply with the laws.”
Vick said these type of proposals try to make residents feel secure without providing any more security.
“I am not a gun guy in the sense that I don’t collect them. I don’t own an AR-15 or anything,” he said. “But I understand why people do, and I think they are entitled to do so.”
Local Democrats and Republicans may come together to support further law changes to discourage children and teenagers from vaping. The 2019 Legislature approved a bill, sponsored by Harris, that raised the smoking and vaping age to 21.
Inslee is expected to propose permanently banning flavored vaping products, eliminating bulk sales and capping nicotine levels in non-THC products.
Harris said he likely will sign onto the governor’s bill. The problem, he said, is too many youth believe vaping is harmless.
Cleveland, chair of the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee, said besides a permanent ban on flavored vaping products, she favors requirements for better labeling and additional education and prevention.
Stonier, who works as an instructional coach in Evergreen Public Schools, said vaping devices have been designed to resemble USB drives or have been built into sweatshirts.
“This is an epidemic that has been targeted to our youth,” she said. “I think it is disgraceful.”