News

24th District holds on

In this year's brutal legislative session, the 24th District - including Sequim -- emerged pretty well, said Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim.

"In the big picture, we came out of it well because (Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, and Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam) and I worked together," Van De Wege said.

"The other districts didn't get what we got. All in all, we came out all right."

Van De Wege, Kessler and Hargrove represent the 24th District, which includes Clallam and Jefferson counties and one third of Grays Harbor County.

Legislators adjourned their 105-day session in the early morning hours of Monday, April 27, after passing a $31 billion two-year budget for 2009-2011 that closed an almost $9 billion revenue gap without raising taxes.

They did it with $3 billion in federal stimulus money,

$2 billion in fund transfers and $4 billion in budget cuts.

Van De Wege said he was pleased that despite the cuts, he was able to establish a stable funding source for the Neah Bay response tugboat,

"That's been a big concern for 10 years," he said.

Legislators also passed a bill that requires people to opt out of a $5 surcharge on license plate tabs, instead of opting in as before, with the additional revenue going to keep state parks open.

"I'm very pleased about the state parks staying open," Van De Wege said.

The 24th District did well especially in the capital budget, including two new ferries on the Port Townsend-Keystone run that everyone thought was impossible, farmland preservation in Clallam County, and new sections of the Olympic Discovery Trail, he said.

They also protected the funding for the U.S. Highway 101 widening project, Van De Wege said.

The $50 million project will widen 2.5 miles of U.S. Highway 101 to four lanes between Kitchen-Dick and Shore roads. It includes $19 million in the 2009-2011 biennium for preliminary engineering, environmental work and buying rights of way. Another $22 million is budgeted for 2011-2013 for the actual roadway widening, followed by $9 million in 2013-2015.

Fortunately, legislators didn't go into a special session where they might have passed House Bill 1776 to cut levy equalization funding, Van De Wege said.

They also provided more funding for Initiative 728 that limits class sizes, which really will help Sequim schools, he said.

"It was bad but it could have been worse," Van De Wege said.

"As much as I hated them, I think the budget cuts were done in a fair way. They were troubling but we had no choice. It would be really tough to raise taxes."

Van De Wege said he anticipates further budget cuts in the next session and adding no new programs for two sessions after that.

"We're still working off the last year's budget," he said.

"People won't realize the extent of these cuts yet until the new fiscal on July 1 or maybe a couple of months after that."

People think the state doesn't affect them but if they have children in school or a parent in a nursing home they will notice, he said.

"This is going to put more pressure on nonprofits. It's going to get worse," Van De Wege said.

Kessler echoed Van De Wege's comments that the just-completed session with its budget cuts was "brutal" but that no appetite existed for tax increases.

"The budget will start impacting our communities, but we had no choice. We softened the blow to Medicaid and education but still cut $4 billion. We had $3.5 billion in federal money, or else it would be even worse," she said.

"It could have been much, much worse but as it is, it's pretty bad. We cut 40,000 people off the Basic Health Plan. We cut in every area of budget," Kessler said.

Legislators were able to provide another $70 a week - $25 in federal money and $45 in state money - for those on unemployment, she said.

The state's unemployment insurance trust fund is the largest in the nation at $4.2 billion, so that formula was reworked to give businesses a break, Kessler said.

"So it was like a rebate, it wasn't all doom and gloom," she said.

Kessler said she thinks Clallam County did really well in this session.

"We got the second ferry for the Port Townsend-Keystone run, that was a coup," she said.

"Peninsula College got $34 million for their new building so that will create jobs. We also kept the money for the U.S. Highway 101 widening, so that was good."

"I'm hoping we never have to pass another budget like this one. It was painful. We didn't raise taxes, I know people thought we wouldn't do it.

"All in all it was just a horrible, challenging session. I just hope we come out of this soon because I don't want to have to do this again," Kessler said.

Finally, over in the Senate, Hargrove also said the budget cuts were bad but could have been worse.

"The budget situation overshadowed everything we planned to do but we were still able to reform government and do a better job for the people of Washington," he said.

"Let's face it. These are difficult cuts. Everyone is going to feel the pain. We focused our efforts on programs that have been proven to work, which will prevent future unnecessary expenses to taxpayers."

One of those cost-cutting measures was adjusting how the state handles monitoring of low-risk offenders, which will save tens of millions of dollars, he said.

Hargrove said two of the biggest areas of reform focused on children: child welfare services and the state's K-12 education system

"We didn't waste this crisis. The child welfare reforms are some of the biggest changes to the Department of Social and Health Services in 20 years, and our basic education changes will keep our kids competitive for decades to come," he said.

The Health and Human Services reforms, as passed in House Bill 2106, requires the state's Child Welfare Service to use performance-based contracts for services such as foster care, adoption, family preservation and group care living.

The overhaul is designed to address the increasing number of complaints and fatalities of children in state care.

The basic education reform changes the legal definition of basic education, expanding the formula used by the state to determine education funding.

House Bill 2261 also lays out a long-term strategy for education reform, including all-day kindergarten and programs for gifted students.



Reach Brian Gawley at bgawley@sequimgazette.com.







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