From left: Then-Washington State Representative-elect Larry Hoff, Sen. Ann Rivers and Rep. Brandon Vick field questions from the audience at Three Creeks Community Library Jan. 5, 2019.

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were front and center among issues discussed by Clark County’s lawmakers from the Washington state 18th Legislative District.

During a telephone town hall event March 22, state Reps. Larry Hoff and Brandon Vick, Republicans from Vancouver, alongside state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, talked about the ongoing legislative session. The majority of issues discussed dealt directly or indirectly with the pandemic, with school reopening and adequate funding to do so among key points raised.

Funding-wise, the state isn’t doing so bad, all things considered, Vick addressed. He noted that tax proposals such as the capital gains tax and a low-carbon fuel standard came out before the latest state revenue forecast, as well as the federal American Rescue Plan Act. He spoke against the proposals in a similar fashion that his 17th Legislative District colleagues did a week prior in their own, similar event as the remote town hall, given that the state’s revenues were relatively intact even with the pandemic. He added that the federal stimulus would give the state more than $4 billion, among other money headed to local governments and K-12 education. 

“Money is not the problem. Prioritizing seems to be where we struggle,” Vick said.

Rivers, a former K-12 teacher, touched on developments regarding the reopening of schools. She noted that significant federal funding would be headed toward school districts, as well as the new guideline from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that Gov. Jay Inslee adopted for the state that reduces required physical distancing to three feet.

Rivers added that there has been work done to provide flexibility in the 180-day school year, but for all of the adjustments made, it was still up to individual districts to dictate when and how their students would be returning to school. She added that the legislature had been working on education in ways that might not be immediately obvious to those looking from the outside.

“When it comes to education, there is so much happening, but it’s a little bit like wiring a house,” Rivers remarked, explaining the work.

Hoff noted that the federal assistance was apportioned based on a district’s free and reduced-price lunch population, which disproportionately affected districts like Hockinson that did not have as much of said demographic. He said there were several pieces of legislation going through currently that would address the discrepancy, adding that budget proposals put out by Republican lawmakers specifically dealt with the issue. 

Listeners were polled periodically through the event for feedback on different issues facing the state. For a question about which issue they thought was most important, 44 percent of respondents said fully reopening schools and businesses was greatest, with reducing individuals’ tax burdens gaining 28 percent, protecting the environment at 12 percent, and public safety at 11 percent.

“We need to get all of our businesses wide open,” Hoff remarked, noting that the week of the town hall, all of Washington state entered Phase 3 of the statewide reopening plan, easing restrictions that dated back more than a year in some cases. All of the lawmakers said they weren’t surprised that reopening was at the top of listeners’ minds.

“This really reflects the kind of communication that I’m receiving,” Rivers remarked. 

Rivers said that the largely-remote session has caused issues with the normal way of doing legislation, in ways such as the inability to have face-to-face conversations with other lawmakers between official proceedings in order to dialogue about what they are trying to accomplish. 

“It’s frustrating because we can’t be there, and we can’t look them in the eye and say, ‘come on, you know this isn’t right,’” Rivers remarked. “You know we’ve got to do what we can do to make people equally happy, or equally sad.”

Rivers said that the virtual nature of the session may have led to lawmakers putting forth legislation that they normally wouldn’t have given the distancing nature of this year’s work, with those individuals feeling more “brave behind their keyboards” than they would during a regular year.

“They don’t have to see the immediate results of something they have written,” Rivers said. “Members (of the legislature) don’t have to see the looks on their colleagues’ faces when they take a vote that … they don’t maybe have all the information about.”

Issues aside, Rivers said that her and her Republican colleagues are still reaching across the aisle to work with the Democratic Party majority.

“We have been able to get some good things done by doing that,” Rivers remarked, “and as far as I’m concerned, that has been for the entirety of my elected service. That has been the secret of my success.”

Listeners were also asked about the recent state court case that decriminalized certain types of drug possession, with two thirds saying there should be some sort of legislation that addresses issues raised by the court order. 

 “The inhumanity of allowing people to become shells of themselves without being able to help them get treatment is heartbreaking to me,” Rivers said. She said that having some sort of legal, therapeutic court system would work to have that help, something in place in courts across the state but defanged by the order’s prohibition on some possession charges.

“The best way to do that is to provide a healthy interface between our legal system and our treatment system,” Rivers said. “That’s the fix that we’re looking for at the legislative level … how do we strengthen treatment so that we are actually helping people?”

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