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From left: Ann Rivers, Rick Bell, John Ley

 

Candidates for Washington state senator in the 18th Legislative District had a chance to talk about potential policy during a virtual town hall, with potential police reforms and approaches to education as main topics for the three candidates in the August primary election race.

Hosted by the League of Women Voters of Clark County, the forum was one of two parts for the first-ever event of its kind hosted by the league due to the requirement of social distancing brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Incumbent Ann Rivers, R-La Center, faced off against fellow Republican John Ley, of Camas, as well as Democratic challenger Rick Bell, also of Camas.

 

Law enforcement and prison

A number of questions dealt with law enforcement in some form, including the Law Enforcement Training and Community Safety Act (LETCSA) brought on by the approval of Initiative 940 of voters in 2018. Leading off a question about how to see that the legislation being enforced, Bell said he would have to see data showing trends that indicated new training led to fewer violent incidents with officers. 

Rivers agreed with Bell’s data-driven approach, saying there was a bill that would require data collection in the past legislative session that did not pass. She said her primary concern was how enforceable the requirements were, adding she had heard from law enforcement who requested clear guidelines in an effort not to have their profession “tarnished by bad actors.”

“We absolutely must hold our law enforcement community to nothing but the highest standards,” Ley said, adding that having adequate funding available for departments in order to pay for necessary training was “absolutely critical” to be able to handle situations when out in the community.

“I spent over a decade in the military, and training was everything,” Ley remarked. 

Candidates were asked further on what legislative efforts they would bring forth or support for more equitable and safe policing.

Ley said he would push for law enforcement officers in every school, pointing to more personal interaction with youth and officers as a way to build trust. He would also like to see more funding for community policing, as well as incentives for departments with high approval ratings in their communities.

Alongside the aforementioned data requirement, which she said would be a focus in next year’s session, Rivers said legislation preventing “impeding an individual’s airway in any way,” in order to avoid a situation like what led to George Floyd’s death, an event in May that brought policing under new scrutiny.

Rivers also supported more funding for community outreach for police, explaining the fostering relationships between officers and citizens “will pay immediate dividends.”

Bell said he had to explain Floyd’s death to his four-year-old daughter, “and that wrecked me,” he remarked. Agreeing on data collection, he said there was more work to be done on addressing implicit bias, non-lethal use of force and de-escalation tactics already a part of LETCSA.

Bell said he would also try “rethinking the police,” augmenting current resources with social work and mental health components that could take the lead in unarmed situations.

Regarding the reduction of prison populations and providing alternatives, Rivers focused on reducing recidivism, advocating for resources like skill-building and options to stay out of environments that could lead those individuals to head back to jail.

Bell was in favor of diversion approaches, specifically for drug-related offenses, adding he believed failing education systems often led to individuals entering the prison system.

“Our big focus needs to be on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline,” Bell said. Acknowledging that communities of color may be disproportionately affected by educational inequities, he remarked that “failing schools fail everybody.”

Bell also pointed to greater prosecution of high-level financial crimes, expressing a desire to see more white-collar crime lead to jail time.

Ley spoke more about stopping increasing incarcerated populations as starting from the home.

“If we educate our children, if we give them a strong sense of right and wrong, they’re not going to end up in jails,” Ley said. He pointed to a need for more enforcement in some cases, specifically mentioning protection of private property.

“The honest answer here is if you don’t want to go to jail, don’t do the crimes,” Ley remarked.

 

Education

Candidates were also asked their approaches on equity and fairness in K-12 schools. 

Ley said that with over half of the state budget going to education, “the resources are there, (but) what we need to find is the most efficient, effective manner to put those resources to use.”

Ley said he was an “absolute advocate” for local control of how funding was used. He pointed to CAM Academy in the Battle Ground Public Schools’ system as an example of what kind of success could be achieved.

Rivers agreed that enough funding was in the system to meet K-12 requirements. She said she has been becoming less of a proponent of local control as she’s seen funds intended to help disadvantaged students or special education be used for purposes outside of what the legislature intended it to be used for.

“We give money for very specific causes and then it goes to other things that may or may not have anything to do with these kids that really need it,” Rivers said.

Noting that the state is required by the McCleary decision to fully fund basic K-12 education, Bell said lowering the cost of healthcare in the state had additional benefits for other avenues, including education funding, which was why it was his top priority if elected.

As far as career training, Rivers said the COVID-19 pandemic showed to her gaps in certain career sectors such as healthcare and transportation. She said that defining needs and bringing necessary aspects of a gap in an industry together would be important to filling those gaps, such as connecting businesses looking to expand with local educational opportunities to train the needed workforce for the expansion.

Bell said he would focus on universal pre-kindergarten education, saying that dollars spent on “high-quality early childhood education” helped to avoid a number of issues ranging from grade repetition to incarceration.

Bell added that lowered costs of housing and healthcare worked to attract workers and build up the local workforce.

Ley said that there were two people who knew what was best for a child’s education, “and that’s their parents,” which played into his advocacy of stronger local control. He said that the solution based in the McCleary decision had failed, adding that a top-down solution for education wasn’t needed.

 

Healthcare

Many of Bell’s answers to issues revolved around healthcare, noting for the past four years he has run a startup that deals with healthcare technology. Answering a question about the necessity for the state to provide healthcare access, he mentioned that in many cases hospital emergency rooms provided for that need, referring to a law passed during the Reagan administration requiring emergency rooms to treat all patients.

“If you’re using the emergency room as your primary care, that’s the most expensive form of care possible,” Bell said. He spoke about looking into single-payer systems of Medicare for all, as well as regulations that could put pressure on insurance companies to make innovations to help reduce costs. 

Rivers pointed to her work in the Senate’s healthcare committee, mentioning specifically providing dental coverage to vulnerable populations. She also touched on issues with doctors facing high business and occupation taxes which made it difficult for them to take Medicaid patients.

“So now we have a huge segment of population who have insurance, but they don’t have a provider,” Rivers said. Apart from working to solve that, Rivers also advocated for more broadband access to allow telehealth programs to expand into isolated areas of the state.

Ley said the Affordable Care Act had not fulfilled its promise to citizens nationwide, which he said would have to be fixed at the national level, though at a state level lawmakers could work toward improving efficiency of Washington’s system.

Ley said that dozens of mandates for healthcare racked up costs, saying that allowing citizens the choice to “buy what you need” would help toward that efficiency.

 

Environmental and housing policy

For addressing the region’s environmentally-minded efforts, Bell said there was viability in looking into more green industries, offering “well-paying, non-outsourceable jobs.” 

“There is an entire green economy out there if we are willing to transform our economy into it,” Bell said.

Ley spoke positively of Washington State’s prior and current efforts for supporting the environment, remarking he’d like to see the state be a worldwide example. 

“We’re already doing more than our fair share, and we’re showing the rest of the world how to do it,” Ley said, “but when you’ve got China and India polluting the air (and) the water beyond any imaginable basis, we can’t do enough.” 

Ley said that current laws needed to be enforced, saying that different government agencies were “punting” the responsibility to each other on who actually did the enforcement.

Rivers said that it was feasible to meet carbon dioxide reduction standards as long as a definite target was given, saying that lands in state rights of way could be useful in sequestering carbon. She added that incentives for businesses to purchase energy-efficient equipment and a more robust recycling program could also meet environmental goals.

Candidates also addressed strategies to combat homelessness, which Ley said was a product of unaffordable housing, the causes of which were property taxes and building costs.

Rivers estimated some $13 billion had been spent on addressing homelessness in the past nine years, “so clearly throwing money at homelessness is not the answer.” Alongside lower building costs, Rivers pointed to accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and use of Section 8 waivers for a “co-housing” program.

Bell said he would work to maintain the state’s housing trust fund which could prove difficult given the billions in budget shortfalls expected following COVID-19. He said housing was one of the biggest determinants of an individual’s health, adding he would like to explore making communities with lower total costs of living including housing, healthcare and transportations as aspects of the larger whole.

 

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