Last Saturday, the triumvirate of 2nd LD legislators completed a two-week series of Town Hall meetings held throughout the district, and their words and tone reveal that the angry rhetoric of the past eighteen months has dissipated.
Voters, too, seemed to express less venom than in the hey-day of the Tea Party and Republican Party ideologues hand-wringing over socialism and Obamacare.
State Senator Randi Becker (R-Eatonville), State Representative Jim McCune (R-Graham) and newly elected State Representative JT Wilcox (R-Yelm) spoke over two weekends in six settings, from Eatonville and Orting in the eastern side of the district, to Yelm in the western half. The Mountain News participated in the Graham gathering last Saturday.
The Town Hall meeting in Graham was warm and cordial, as if it was held around a roaring fire in someone’s living room. The legislators said their other Town Hall meetings were equally well-attended and respectful.
“No one’s been shouting,” said JT Wilcox.
In Graham, replacing the cry of jobs, jobs, jobs that was shouted during the last election from both voters and politicians, was replaced by a sober analysis of the state’s desperate budgetary condition.
Senator Becker opened the meeting and immediately launched into a discussion of the state’s finances.
“It’s our number one focus,” she said. “The budget dominates all political discussions, and the cuts we have to make are just horrible.”
“For certain seniors who are on state care, we’ve had to stop paying for eyeglasses, hearing, dental care and even podiatry,” Senator Becker said. “That’s sad.”
Representative Jim McCune echoed the dominance of budgetary concerns in Olympia, and said he anticipates an expanded use of tolls on highways to raise revenues, and a possible increase in the gas tax to generate the monies necessary to construct needed infrastructure, such as the SR 167 extension into the industrial areas along the tide flats of Tacoma.
McCune also discussed the recent update on projected state revenues, which are $700 million less than forecasted a few months ago.
“The revenue shortfall indicates that the recovery is still not too strong,” he said.
JT Wilcox followed his senior colleagues, but addressed the audience the longest, sharing many details of the current budgetary process.
He spoke first of a dire situation, where the budget needs extraordinary transformation or it will cause a $5 billion deficit next year in the state’s general fund’s budget of $32 billion.
“We’re at the point where we have to get real,” he said.
But he also sounded calm and upbeat.
I give the Governor credit – her budget proposal matches the revenues coming in,” Wilcox said, adding, “There are some differences between the Republicans and the Democrats, but it’s mostly philosophical.”
Wilcox indicated that the need for budget cuts is recognized equally by both political parties but the current negotiations are more in the realm of what kinds of reductions in which departments.
Wilcox said that the Democrats are proposing across-the-board cuts in equal measure that would keep the general shape of government intact – albeit smaller, whereas the Republicans are advocating a more targeted approach, meaning that some programs favored by Democrats would be eliminated under the Republican approach.
However, none of the three legislators identified specific programs suggested by Republicans for elimination or how drastic some reductions could be.
Nevertheless, JT did offer some specific solutions to the pressures upon the state budget, particularly regarding state employee pensions. He said that Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) need to be reduced, and large-scale automatic increases in pensions must be curtailed.
He also reassured pensioners, especially one vocal member of the audience, that the state pension fund is financially sound for the next twenty years, and that the recent practices of under-funding to balance the state budget needs to be stopped and a systematic re-funding plan must be developed.
“Our number one priority is to preserve the pension fund,” he said.
JT also struck a conciliatory note when he acknowledged that the current budgetary problems were caused several years ago, primarily by the recession and the decrease in tax revenues. He criticized Democrats for not reducing expenditures at that time, but he revealed an understanding of the pressures faced by legislators to maintain programs even when they cause a financial mess.
“It’s important not to forget that our policies impact real people,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said he didn’t want to start a “we and them” dialectic.
“I’m not going to say ‘them.’ I’m there now, so I say ‘we.’ It’s my responsibility, now, to fix things,” Wilcox explained.
At the very end of the Graham gathering the three legislators spoke about jobs. Again, JT Wilcox spoke at length, reflecting his former position as the chief financial officer of his family’s Wilcox Farms.
“We’re not going to get a lot of jobs very quickly,” he acknowledged.
Continuing, he added: “You don’t turn a switch and bring back private sector jobs. We need to create a climate where the private sector can be successful.”
Wilcox detailed several areas of governmental policy that could allow businesses to start hiring, and identified state unemployment rates as too high for businesses and in addition, advocated reforms to workers’ compensation policies.
“Washington is the most expensive state in the nation for workers’ compensation,” he said. “The average time-loss for a worker is 250 days. That is extreme.”
Wilcox strongly advocated giving lump sum payments to chronically injured workers to reduce state expenditures and also lower costs to employers.
Senator Becker said that “there are a ton of things we can do in the legislature to clean-up regulations,” and thus assist employers.
She also declared that she has a great deal of concern about business practices at Labor and Industries.
Becker also railed at the lack of accountability in many areas of state government, such as the Department of Transportation, which she claimed has failed to properly account for the disastrous mis-design and interrupted construction of the SR 16 ramp at I-5 in Tacoma.
Becker, Wilcox and McCune also joined with the audience in a discussion of the role of government and what areas could be transferred to private control.
“Well, the $300 million building for Information Technology is one good example of government without a plan,” said Wilcox, but he also cautioned against the rush to privatize.
“You have to remember that the private sector can screw things up, too. It’s just that it’s easier to fire someone in private business when they do.”
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