A standing-room-only audience greeted 17th District legislators Sen. Lynda Wilson, Rep. Paul Harris and Rep. Kevin Waters during a town hall meeting at the Port of Camas-Washougal on Saturday morning.
Along with being the first town hall meeting for freshman legislator Waters, it was also the first in-person town hall for Harris and Wilson in few years.
The trio of lawmakers kicked off the meeting by discussing the bills they’ve been working on since the Legislature convened on Jan. 9. Among the bills Wilson said she is working to pass is Senate Bill 5010, which would add synthetic opioids like fentanyl to the endangerment with a controlled substance statute. Wilson said that because fentanyl is not currently included in the statute, prosecutors have been unable to charge parents with child endangerment.
“The prosecuting attorney from the Children’s Justice Center contacted me before the session and said, ‘We have an issue,’” Wilson said.
Rising crime rates is another area on which Wilson said she is working.
“As of last week, we’re third in the country for auto thefts per capita. And we’re ranked last for our per capita for police. We have very few police per capita … and that has a lot to do with our crime increases,” Wilson told the crowd.
Although he’s a new legislator, Waters has already had some success in getting bills passed. He said he’s targeting workforce-related legislation, including House Bill 1730, which would allow individuals aged 18 to 20 to work in bars and taverns under very strict guidelines.
The bill passed the House in early March and is scheduled for a Senate hearing next week.
“We had an opportunity to outlaw the production of THC and alcohol at the same time, in the same product. I call it ‘blackout in a can,’” Waters said.
That bill is also scheduled for a Senate hearing next week.
Among the bills Harris is working to pass is House Bill 1112, which would stiffen criminal penalties for negligent driving resulting in a death.
“In our state, a negligent driver, if he pleads guilty, the maximum fine is $250 and 40 hours of community service,” Harris said.
While the bill did pass the House, Harris said it’s been difficult to get Democratic lawmakers to support increasing penalties for a crime. However, he said he recently got Sen. Manka Dhingra, the deputy majority leader of the Senate, to support the bill, so he’s hopeful it will now move forward.
Audience members also had the opportunity to question the legislators on their work. The questions ranged from the state budget, Interstate Bridge Replacement Program and transportation funding to firearms, police pursuit and emergency powers reform bills.
With officials from the Washougal, Camas and Evergreen school districts in the audience, along with school board members and teachers, it was little surprise that education was one topic nearly everyone wanted to discuss.
Waters said he knows firsthand the desperate conditions many school districts are facing.
“I live in Stevenson, and I come from schools that were built in the ’50s that have never seen a dime put back into them since the ’50s,” Waters said. “We have worn-out buildings and worn-out infrastructure.”
Steve Houston, of Cascade Park, asked legislators to increase the per-pupil rate to help address the Camas, Washougal and Evergreen school districts’ funding issues. He said he began volunteering with schools after retiring and had other suggestions for improvements.
“I’ve seen the system in action,” Houston said. “If I was dictator, I would say increase the school year by at least 20 days and, if you can, cut the class size in half.”
Houston said it seemed Republicans don’t want to raise anything but students and schools need more.
The Washougal and Evergreen school districts announced recently that big staffing cuts could be on the horizon. Washougal is looking at cutting 244 staff positions for the 2023-24 school years after levies to pay for athletics, arts, technology and other services not funded by state or federal governments failed in February. The district will rerun the levies on April 25.
The Evergreen School District announced earlier this month that it plans to trim $19 million from its budget, including cuts to support and intervention staff, athletic directors and teacher librarians. Superintendent John Boyd said during a March 14 board meeting that the cuts were due to inflation, the expiration of emergency relief funding, a 13.8 percent enrollment decrease over the past six years and the need to maintain a 5 percent fund balance from year to year.
“It’s a really difficult topic,” Harris said, noting that school enrollments are down because of the pandemic and that means schools receive less money.
“We’re really concerned about the learning loss,” Wilson said.
While some of that decline can be attributed to the pandemic and the resulting closing of schools, Wilson said those numbers have been on the decline since 2013. She also said she only recently learned that the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has been sitting on $100 million earmarked for addressing learning loss.
“We’re going to find out what the heck is going on there, because we need that money out there,” she said.