Legislators in Washington state’s 18th Legislative District spent their Saturday traveling Clark County to hear from constituents in a series of four town halls, making the trip prior to the 2019 legislative session.
State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, State Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Felida, and Republican Representative-elect Larry Hoff took part in events in Ridgefield, Battle Ground, Camas and Salmon Creek. It was the first time that 18th District lawmakers had a town hall in Salmon Creek, managing to pack the community room at Three Creeks Community Library.
Conversations across the town halls ranged from environmental concerns, development and the opioid epidemic. The Republican lawmakers noted that in 2019 both chambers will again be Democrat-controlled.
Rivers said the 18th District used to be the second-most conservative district on the west side of the Cascades. Now, the district has become more politically diverse, something she felt important for constituents to recognize as there could be differences in opinion among what citizens wanted.
Hoff said dynamics in Olympia have changed somewhat in 2019, noting that in the House there are 41 Republicans to 57 Democrats which was a loss of about seven seats for the GOP.
Rivers pointed to bipartisan work she did while serving as part of a majority coalition caucus for five years as evidence of how she can still get things done.
“I was bipartisan when it mattered most, and that is when we were in charge,” Rivers said, adding it was easy to claim bipartisanism when the other side was calling the shots. Last year, the first after the party shift in the Senate, she said she was still able to get much done given that bipartisan precedent.
The lawmakers were asked about the initiative process, specifically on how they would focus on creating policy through legislation as a way to avoid relying on voter-approved ballot measures that some felt led to poor policy.
Rivers doesn’t feel that currently initiatives were truly representative of the people, instead pointing to funding for initiative campaigns to see who was really behind the political pushes.
“I feel this very strongly, that our initiative process has been hijacked, hijacked by big-money interests,” she said. “They use messaging, sometimes that’s truthful, sometimes that’s not truthful, to use fear to get people to vote a certain way.”
Rivers acknowledged that in some cases initiatives arise for issues that the legislature has put off addressing, though she spoke of the paid family leave bill passed in 2017 as an example of where lawmakers were proactive in their work. She said a few lawmakers were privileged to see a draft of an initiative regarding the matter.
“While I took some slings and arrows for voting in favor of what the bill was, if you had seen the initiative you would have said ‘thank you,’” Rivers remarked, adding that an initiative vote with whatever language was included would have likely passed.
Bonds and bridges
Though the Salmon Creek town hall was technically in the Vancouver Public Schools district, talk of school construction bonds came up at that town hall, framed with multiple failures by Battle Ground Public Schools to pass one in recent history and an upcoming vote for another one in the Ridgefield School District.
A bill this year could lower the threshold for construction bonds from 60 percent of voters to 50 percent.
Rivers said the required 60 percent is an acknowledgement to the long-term nature of bonds, which are paid off over decades. She said she always felt it should be higher than a simple majority, but was less certain as to whether 60 percent was too high or just right.
Hoff agreed that the higher threshold was adequate, noting he hadn’t voted against a bond. Vick said he was worried that lowering it could lead to other funding request votes going lower which he felt would lead to a loss of the minority’s voice.
Lawmakers were asked about work on replacing the Interstate 5 bridge, especially pertinent given Vick and Rivers’ positions on a legislative task force charged with that project. Vick said a December meeting where a few Oregon lawmakers met with the Washington task force appointees was a start, but he doesn’t feel legislators south of the river are at the point in the process that he and his fellow Washington lawmakers are.
Discussions of transportation over the Columbia River have been heated in the past and in some cases now, though Vick said most of it was unfounded.
“I would say we have achieved the civility as a group by focusing on process,” Vick said, adding that a lot of the public discussion, framed in the shadow of the failed Columbia River Crossing project, is on hypotheticals that lawmakers aren’t even discussing at this point. What might be prevalent in public discussion wasn’t indicative of what people on the task force were considering.
“There is a lack of civility circulating (but) a lot of it is made up,” he said.