Economy, environment, social justice, COVID recovery, housing: legislators anticipate the 2021 session

Shame High School
Education-related concerns — including COVID impacts, systemic injustice, revenue equity and more — are among issues on the minds of legislators from the 40th and 42nd districts as they prepare for the 2021 session opening on Monday, Jan. 11. Above, Bellingham’s Sehome High School awaits a return to normal activity while pandemic safety practices remain in place. (Amy Nelson photo © 2020)

Salish Current asked 40th and 42nd District legislators a few questions about how they see the legislative session that convenes on Monday, Jan. 11; their answers follow. We’ll keep an eye on how well they do the people’s business this session and report back.

40th Legislative District

Please list three most important issues you will legislate for on behalf of your district and briefly explain why they are important.

Rep. Debra Lekanoff

Economic recovery: Recovery in the wake of the pandemic means adequately supporting public health efforts and aiding those in urgent need, such as small businesses, frontline workers and low-income families, but also working on long-term solutions for economic recovery. To stimulate our local economies and protect those hit hardest by the pandemic, I’ve worked with my colleagues to develop the Washington STRONG Act. With Washington STRONG, our state would have a new tool to stimulate capital investment and economic recovery starting in rural areas and frontline communities, with family-wage jobs, using science and evidence to make investments that get people back to work, and provide market-based incentives to transition to a greener economy. 

Environmental justice: Climate change is among the most imminent threats to our communities. But climate change is not just an environmental issue. We need to start thinking about it holistically, considering the impacts to our health, education, housing, transportation, infrastructure and economy. This session, I’ll continue my work to institute a community development standard of net ecological gain, to modernize the Growth Management Act to include salmon recovery, and to pass the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act, which will help address environmental health disparities. 

Criminal justice reform: This year’s historic protests have awakened the public to the need for racial equity and justice system reforms. Recognizing the complex problems of police-community relations, legislators assembled the Policing Policy Leadership Team this interim to examine current policies and devise a plan to rebuild communities’ trust in law enforcement. I’m proud to serve on that team and will continue to work toward delivering the change that our communities have been demanding. 

Rep. Alex Ramel

Our priorities this year have to be more constrained, it’s going to be harder to get things done. But at the same time, we are in the midst of multiple overlapping crises. The Legislature is going to need to be focused and diligent. 

Pandemic recovery that puts people first: To me that means we need a strong public health response, better support for small businesses especially and protection for people who have been impacted by COVID-19, by shutdowns and by the recession – I’m especially focused on housing and rental assistance needs in this regard. 

Racal justice and equity: We are in the midst of the most powerful civil rights movement of my lifetime, and we need to respond with equally strong action as a state government. The clearest and loudest calls have been for deep reform in our criminal justice system, and that’s important. Also, we need to make sure that we are thinking about the implications for systemic injustice in our healthcare policy, housing policy, environmental policy, education policy, etc. Everything we do either addresses these wrongs that have been with us for generations, or perpetuates them. My hope is that this is the year in which we begin to be truly intentional about how we make decisions in this light.

Climate action: We have adopted a state energy strategy that, if implemented, will put us on a path to a clean energy future in line with science and international agreements. Implementing that plan means taking big steps forward with regards to clean transportation fuels, healthy homes and buildings, and investments in that infrastructure for renewable energy. 

Sen. Liz Lovelett

Climate action: The wildfires throughout our incredible state this summer only made the climate crisis we are living in clearer. We’ve been hard at work in the Legislature to pass policies that address the crisis we are in, but we have a lot of work left to do. I’m teaming up with my seatmate in the 40th Rep. Lekanoff and neighbor to the north Rep. Shewmake of the 42nd to introduce legislation to put a price on carbon emissions, so that generations to come can enjoy the incredible natural environment of our state. 

Climate change may be a massive threat to our planet, but it also presents an opportunity for our state to step up and create sustainable, fair-wage jobs in climate resilience industries across our entire economy. Enacting a price on carbon produces the revenue needed to make bold investments in sustainable infrastructure, wildfire prevention and frontline communities who have borne the brunt of environmental harm.

Affordable housing: In the middle of a pandemic, many of our neighbors are still struggling to find affordable housing and get a roof over their heads. Washington has consistently ranked as one of the most difficult states in the United States to buy a home.

It is unacceptable that so many within our community have so few housing options in our state. I’ve introduced legislation to allow local jurisdictions the option to enact a new tax on online-based short-term rental housing, which would then be used to fund affordable housing. This is one step that the Legislature can take to give local entities the power to build and fund more housing, and I will continue to support other measures that work towards providing affordable housing options for our residents.

Commitment to ferry services: In the 40th, we understand how important ferries are to our community. They are a vital part of our state highway system, provide economic opportunity and create good, family-wage jobs for our residents. That’s why it’s more important now than ever to continue investing in Washington State Ferries — even with ridership taking a hit due to decreased travel in 2020. That means working towards a hybrid fleet, protecting the Sidney route from privatization efforts and improving service.

How will you legislate to ensure the COVID-19 infections are limited and that vaccines are fully utilized?

Rep. Debra Lekanoff

We’ve kept infection rates from skyrocketing in Washington and overwhelming the state’s health care systems by following the recommendations of our public health officials. This includes following safety measures, such as physical distancing and masking, as well as the social and economic restrictions issued by the governor. To best protect our families and our communities, we as legislators will need to continue to listen to our public health officials, ensuring science and evidence-based practices inform the measures we take to protect Washingtonians and the safe, efficient rollout of vaccines. 

Rep. Alex Ramel

I think one of the reasons Washington has had one of the lowest infection rates in the nation is because we’ve got good public health officials and we’ve let them guide decisions, rather than politicians. I hope to continue that approach with vaccine distribution, and the complicated social messaging as we enter a phase where many are vaccinated, but many are still not. The most important legislative role we can play is to make sure that the people who have studied, planned and prepared for this moment are well resourced and insulated from political pressure.

Sen. Liz Lovelett

2020 emphasized the importance of listening to science and health experts when developing public health guidelines. The policies that have been implemented in our state during the pandemic have been guided by scientists, and I am committed to continuing the cooperation with local and state departments of health. I support efforts to better fund county health departments to continue contact tracing and ensuring our frontline workers, hospital staff, and school employees have access to the vaccine as we have more doses available.

How will you legislate to ensure that our public K-12 schools are adequately funded?

Rep. Debra Lekanoff

First, I want to thank all the teachers and school workers who are continuing to support and educate our students during this crisis. As a single mother to a high school student, I understand and appreciate the challenges our schools, parents and students are facing while trying to adapt to remote and hybrid learning. Many students and parents are trying to work from the same house, often without fast, reliable internet due to the lack of broadband access across the state. Rural schools in particular, which were already in need of additional funding, are struggling disproportionately. Legislators will need to address the budget shortfall and consider new, progressive revenue options to more adequately fund K-12 education and address the other needs of our state’s communities. 

Here in the 40th District, our delegation has worked with our superintendents and leadership in both the House and the Senate to explore options to help local schools struggling due to the limitations on raising local levy funds. While I will continue to work on addressing this inadvertent harm to our local schools, my focus will be on addressing statewide budget shortfalls and the impact of COVID-19 on K-12 education. 

Rep. Alex Ramel

School budgets throughout the San Juan Islands, as well as the Anacortes district, have been unintentionally harmed by what’s called the levy lid — a limit imposed a couple of years ago on their ability to raise local levy funds. Last year I, alongside Sen. Lovelett and Rep. Lekanoff, worked to correct this unintended consequence for island communities; but the politics are challenging. I still hope we can eventually resolve this problem, but I also want to pivot to addressing the budget shortfalls directly — with more generous state funding through formula adjustments for nursing, behavioral health counselors and paraeducators. 

Sen. Liz Lovelett

In the last two years, I have been fighting to pass legislation to address the unequal funding that smaller school districts in Washington are receiving. Prior bills I have introduced would have allowed for school districts to propose larger levy increases — essentially providing voters and small communities with the opportunity to allocate funding to their districts. 

This is a principle that I will continue to stand by and work towards in the upcoming session. Our students need funding now more than ever before. Additionally, we need immediate investments in high-speed internet so our students and staff can meet the needs of our current crisis.

If the state budget needs to be cut and if no Federal relief to the state is forthcoming, what state services and/or departments are you willing to cut and which are you not willing to cut?

Rep. Debra Lekanoff

COVID-19 has ravaged our state and severely impacted our state budget. Our current tax structure relies heavily on regressive taxes, such as sales and excise taxes, which has led to significant reductions in revenue collections during the pandemic. People can’t afford to spend beyond the basics, they aren’t going out to eat and tourism is significantly down. Despite this, it is important that we avoid budget cuts to significant services or departments. This approach was used when the state was faced with the Great Recession a decade ago, and reducing supports and services to families already in need only exacerbated the problem and drove further inequities. 

Instead, we must reconcile this loss of revenue by taking a balanced approach to reduce expenditures where we can, update our tax code to relieve the burden on low- and middle-income households, and have our wealthiest individuals and corporations pay their fair share to support the needs of our communities. As a newly appointed member of the Appropriations, or budget-writing, committee, I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to bring forward a thoughtful, balanced budget. 

Rep. Alex Ramel

I’d push back on the framing of this question; a budget shortfall doesn’t have to mean cuts to services. It can also mean that we ask the wealthy to contribute a little bit more. I simply don’t believe that we have a lot of waste in the state government that can be cut without consequences. We just talked about how school budgets need to be increased, and that’s about half of the state’s expenditures. In the last recession the idea that we had to make cuts prevailed. We saw cuts to education and which led to the McCleary case. We made cuts to the social safety net which led to growing inequality, and we saw cuts to higher education that contributed to growing student loan debt. Let’s not assume we have to make those mistakes again.

In Washington we have the most upside-down tax code in the country. Those in the bottom quartile of incomes pay an average of 17% of what they earn in state and local taxes, while the top 1% of earners pay only 2–3% of their income in state and local taxes. It’s impractical, ineffective, unfair and immoral. I’ll be focused on balancing the budget while working to fix this inequality. 

Sen. Liz Lovelett

Before considering which vital state services and departments would need to be cut in the face of this pandemic recession, I first would like to commit to generating progressive revenue through other means. We know that the cuts from the last recession only made things worse off for the vulnerable communities that need these services the most. So many of our social services have proven to be necessary resources to our neighbors during this crisis. Recent revenue forecasts and emergency funding from the state’s rainy-day fund paint a hopeful picture towards recovery in Washington. If cuts become necessary, I will fight to ensure they are not on critical services that our communities count on. It is unconscionable to push people into deeper poverty to balance the budget.

What specific action will you take to heal the political divisions in your district?

Rep. Debra Lekanoff

There is a broad spectrum of ideas and perspectives within the 40th District and across our state. That’s why it has always been my priority to engage stakeholders across the spectrum and legislate from a position of knowledge and understanding. I represent the people, and in doing so, I strive to reflect them and their input in the decisions we make in the Legislature. This includes working with my colleagues across the aisle and with our Senate counterparts. I believe building these bridges helps bring about policy that benefits all communities across Washington. It is a time for recovery, and working together for the greater good is more important now than ever. While I may differ ideologically with Republicans serving in the Legislature, I have fostered working relationships with many, and will continue to work with them on common goals that benefit our districts and communities across the state. 

Rep. Alex Ramel

One thing I’ve observed in my first year in the Legislature is that most of what we do has bipartisan support. The news coverage is most interesting on bills where partisan battle lines are drawn, but the day to day almost always includes opportunities for collaboration. 

To be sure, there are some Republicans who have taken positions that I find so odious that I’m not going to ever trust their judgement on any policy positions. But there are many who I genuinely like, can learn from, and with whom I can find common ground. I’ll continue to invest time and effort to build those good working relationships. 

Sen. Liz Lovelett

I will continue reaching across the aisle to engage my Republican colleagues on policies where I feel common ground can be found. Currently, I’m working with Senator Brad Hawkins (R- Wenatchee) of the 12th district on a hydrogen fuel cell pilot program. Last session, three of my bills passed out of both the state House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support — all passing unanimously. I believe that a policy is only as strong as the most diverse opinion you bring in. That cooperation is the foundation of the work I do for the 40th district, and it will remain so during the 2021 session. 

42nd Legislative District

Please list three most important issues you will legislate for on behalf of your district and briefly explain why they are important.

Rep. Sharon Shewmake

  • Public health and healthcare
  • Economic recovery and housing affordability
  • Racial justice and environmental protection

Sen. Doug Ericksen

  • Protecting and creating family wage jobs
  • Protecting working families and individuals from tax increases
  • Promoting policies to return Washington to the pre-COVID normal with in-school classes, open businesses and opportunities to live our lives in a normal fashion

How will you legislate to ensure the COVID-19 infections are limited and that vaccines are fully utilized?

Rep. Sharon Shewmake

I believe in a public-health guided process — obviously the healthcare and frontline workers first, agricultural workers are high on the list because of their importance and that they live in congregate facilities, at-risk individuals, teachers. But public health experts who put the health of us all first should be in charge. 

Sen. Doug Ericksen

Utilize sound science while working with medical professionals to de-politicize the COVID-19 response while working to get Washington back to the pre-COVID-19 normal as soon as possible. 

How will you legislate to ensure that our public K-12 schools are adequately funded?

Rep. Sharon Shewmake

We need structural change in our tax collections. If we switch to fairer taxes that are more volatile I want to ensure we build in additional stabilization measures. 

Sen. Doug Ericksen

The Legislature should establish a budget that grows at a rate at or below inflation plus population growth. Working within the established budget, the Legislature should make education funding the priority. Lawmakers also should allow parents more choice on how and where their children are educated. 

If the state budget needs to be cut and if no Federal relief to the state is forthcoming, what state services and/or departments are you willing to cut and which are you not willing to cut?

Rep. Sharon Shewmake

The governor asked agencies to report back on what a cut would look like. For some places it was very painful; for others it looks like putting off new hires. I’m not willing to cut services for those most vulnerable. We see that costs us more in their long run. 

Sen. Doug Ericksen

The previous budget passed by the Legislature grew government by over 20%. Using a “priorities of government” system we can fund our most important needs without raising taxes on the people of Washington. 

What specific action will you take to heal the political divisions in your district?

Rep. Sharon Shewmake

Most people agree when they sit down and talk to one another. We fight over some substance but a lot of what we are fighting over isn’t values-based; it’s fact-based. At a state or district level it mostly just requires a little bit of research to dig through the facts. I’ll do that. I’ll present evidence and be fair, and I take the time to have those conversations. Sometimes I change minds, sometimes my mind is changed but really it’s also about learning new perspectives and deeper compassion. 

Sen. Doug Ericksen

Ignore the naysayers, stand on principles treat people with respect and focus on solutions for the people of the 42nd Legislative District.

(Representative-elect Alicia Rule did not respond to the questionnaire.)