Peninsula’s state lawmakers recap session

The Olympic Peninsula’s legislative delegation provided a recap of this year’s short legislative session and discussed priorities for next year.

State Reps. Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend, Mike Chapman of Port Angeles and Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Lake Sutherland, all Democrats from the 24th Legislative District, told the Port Angeles Business Association audience on May 7 that the Peninsula did well in terms of bringing in state funding.

Tharinger, who chairs the House Capital Budget Committee, said over the past six years the Legislature has been able to put money into the state operating budget to increase Medicare reimbursement for community hospitals like Olympic Medical Center and Jefferson Healthcare.

“Overall, the 24th did pretty well,” Tharinger said, noting lawmakers had put money into a biochar company in Port Angeles called Myno Carbon Corp.

“We got about $2.5 million to help them develop an energy grid,” Tharinger said. “(The facility) generates energy so they will be putting energy into the grid, but they’ll be able to provide their own energy for the process.”

During the question-and-answer session last week, meeting attendees raised several areas of concern with lawmakers, including the state Department of Transportation’s plans to install roundabouts on the highways leading to Jefferson and Clallam counties.

PABA has authored a letter to DOT asking the department not to install additional roundabouts on U.S. Highway 101 and state Highway 104 between Port Angeles and the Hood Canal, but all three of the district’s elected officials said they supported the installation of roundabouts.

“I’m not as opposed to roundabouts as I was originally,” Tharinger said, referring to his time as a Clallam County commissioner.

“I think that, as people learn to use them, they’re not as onerous as one might think. We have talked to DOT about not putting them in, but their engineers seem to think that, for all their data that they have, that they’re a better way to go.”

Van De Wege said the only other way to deal with traffic mitigation at certain intersections is to install overpasses, which are expensive to install and maintain.

“I’m hopeful roundabouts will make a positive difference,” he said.

Chapman made the most full-throated defense of roundabouts, saying he had worked to secure $4 million in funding for a roundabout near Blyn. In addition to increasing traffic flow and safety, Chapman said installing roundabouts creates private-sector construction jobs.

“This is a proven method, and I’m working my butt off to get more roundabouts so that we don’t have these accidents that close our highway for hours,” Chapman said.

“I’m in support. It’s bringing money into the district, and every time you guys tell DOT don’t do something, believe me, they have 10 other projects in 10 other districts with 10 other representatives who are saying, ‘Hey, we’ll take the money.’”

Another issue raised with lawmakers was the forestry industry with some attendees expressing concern about more state Department of Natural Resources’ timberlands being moved into conservation status. Revenue from state timberlands funds junior taxing districts and local education, and the local timber industry provides a number of well-paying jobs.

Lawmakers said they were concerned about the health of the timber industry and said finding a balance between a robust industry and environmental stewardship is difficult.

“Finding that balance is really tricky, and it’s going to be trickier in the next few years,” Tharinger said. “Personally, my view is that if we could take those trees and turn them into mass timber products and build buildings with those trees, that will sequester that carbon.”

The issue of timberlands and carbon sequestration is likely to be debated heavily in the next few legislative sessions, Tharinger said.

“I deeply support the timber industry and the jobs it’s created. I care deeply about these communities,” Van De Wege said. “I’m very concerned about taking more land offline. Fifty-three percent of the forests in this state are protected, will never be harvested — to see that number grow, I just worry about a collapse where sawmills are going out of business.”

Of the three lawmakers, only Tharinger is looking to retain his current seat. Van De Wege is running for the statewide position of Commissioner of Public Lands, the position which leads the Department of Natural Resources, and Chapman is looking to fill the Senate seat Van De Wege is leaving.

In addition to the 98 House seats that come up for election every two years, 25 of the state’s 49 Senate seats are also on the ballot, as are races for governor, U.S. Senator and U.S. House Representatives.

“The future of the Olympic Peninsula is on the ballot this fall,” Chapman said.