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What legislators hope to preserve and protect

OLYMPIA -- State Rep. Kevin Van De Wege wants to keep the way paved for widening U.S. Highway 101 between Shore and Kitchen-Dick roads.

His colleague Rep. Lynn Kessler hopes to avoid ripping holes in the safety net that spreads beneath the state's most vulnerable persons.

And state Sen. Jim Hargrove wants to keep in place services for brain-disordered people, plus strategies to give released offenders the best chance to go straight.

Interviewed during the current legislative session's busiest day to date - when bills had to clear their chambers of origin or die - the 24th District delegation Thursday told the Sequim Gazette what programs on the North Olympic Peninsula they wanted to shield from deep cuts to the state budget.

Kessler hopes to buck Gov. Chris Gregoire's announced elimination of General Assistance for the Unemployable that Gregoire says can save $200 million each year.

As House majority leader, the representative from Hoquiam is well positioned to restore GAU payments to "keep those people from dying on the streets."

Many GAU recipients are mentally ill and homeless, with no other source of income or access to medical care.

Kessler said she'd also fight for the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP.

"We're not giving up on that, no matter what," she told a gathering of newspaper executives in the capital.

"Covering children is the most cost-effective, cheapest thing we can do. We want to make sure that the kids, at least, are covered."

She added that state-supported agencies must brace for more cases of domestic violence and child abuse as the economy stumbles.

Clallam County's unemployment rate rose to 10.9 percent last month. In Kessler's home county of Gray's Harbor, the rate is 13.4 percent, not counting the recent closure of two Weyerhaeuser mills.

"There's no replacement for those kinds of jobs," Kessler said.

Hargrove hopes to blunt the effects of such employment losses with a $20 million appropriation for job retraining at community colleges around the state. He called the plan similar to what was done for unemployed forest-products workers when certain woods were closed to logging to save spotted owls.

It passed the state Senate last week, 58 to 1.

Like Kessler, Hargrove will try to reinstate GAU. Eliminating it, he said, "just shifts the case load elsewhere" - namely to jails for the mentally ill and to hospital emergency rooms for health care.

The senator from Hoquiam said a falling crime rate bears witness to the success of social programs. Strategies to support offenders who have served their time have helped open 400 beds in prisons across the state by preventing recidivism.

"For the first time in years, we actually have some prison capacity," he said.

The depth of the state's revenue shortfall is equal to the cost of educating every Washington child for a year and three times what state coffers lost after 9/11, he said.

Meanwhile, Van De Wege put a high priority on widening Highway 101's two-lane stretch between Port Angeles and Carlsborg, among other transportation needs.

"We're certainly working hard on the ferries issue," he said, adding that he would like funding for two new boats on the Port Townsend-Keystone run.

The state has contracted for only one ferry to replace the Steel Electric boats that were pulled out of service as unsafe last year.

With people driving less, "our gas tax revenues are going down, so we do need to fight really hard to keep our projects," Van De Wege said.

"Everything is taking a big hit. I think a lot of state workers will lose their jobs this summer."

Nevertheless, Van De Wege said he would oppose any cuts that would "decimate our state parks."

And the Sequim Democrat could bask in a bright spot in the current legislative session - funding for a year-round rescue tug stationed at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

"We created a state law that established a tug at Neah Bay," said Van De Wege, "in what is probably the worst economic crisis the state has faced."

Jim Casey can be reached at editor@sequimgazette.com.

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