On Saturday, over 100 citizens attended a town hall hosted by Sen. Doug Ericksen and Rep. Vincent Buys at Ferndale High School. As I took my seat, with fellow blogger Shane Roth, I noted Rep. Overstreet’s absence. My question was swiftly answered by Rep. Buys who informed us that Overstreet had a family commitment and couldn’t make it. As everyone got settled, Rep. Buys led us in the Pledge of Allegiance and then we began the town hall.
He and Ericksen both spoke briefly about the committees they had served on and the bills they were trying to pass. At the top of their priority list was a bill that would add two non-voting positions two the Red Raspberry Commission that focused on marketing. As a whole, the Red Raspberry Commission is tasked with promoting raspberry consumption, so adding two marketing positions to the commission seemed a natural step.
Next, they both mentioned their efforts to exempt the Lynden Fair from property taxes – counteracting a recent change by the Department of Revenue that requires local fairs to pay property taxes if they also rent the space out for other commercial uses. The Lynden Fairgrounds would face some significant tax increases based on this new ruling and they wanted to protect it from that cost.
Both Buys and Ericksen repeatedly hit the theme of out-of-control spending. Referring to their charts (see below), they stressed how taxes were too high and the government was spending too much money. Notice anything about the chart? It doesn’t include inflation or population growth.
Ericksen talked for a bit about the Republican-controlled Senate. “For the first time we have both Democrats and Republicans heading up committees. For instance, Sen. Hatfield is in charge of the Ag Committee. Which is funny because agriculture is so important to us, but he’s a Democrat and he’s in charge of the agriculture committee.” He waited expectantly for a chuckle from the audience but when nothing came, he moved right on. “What’s interesting about this is that it’s a one vote majority, so everything we do is bipartisan.”
This is when Ericksen touted his work with Sen. Ranker. “I’ve had a great time working very closely with Sen. Ranker on a whole host of issues.” At this the audience openly laughed at him (to my delight, they had heard of Ericksen’s recent tiff with Ranker). Sen. Ericksen looked around, mildly confused. I think he expected a conservative audience but he was rapidly realizing that this wasn’t the case. He finished his thought and quickly moved to the question and answer period.
Right off the bat, a woman rose and spoke about education. Her name was Holly Koon and she was a science teacher at Mt. Baker High School. She began by listing several positions that had been slashed from her school in the last six years. Teachers, administrators, librarians, the list was long. “These declining funds are creating very real barriers to graduation for our students.” She pleaded with the legislators to do something substantial about funding education. Ericksen responded coolly, “As you can see, we’ve increased government spending by 7% and the majority coalition is discussing funding options, but what you have to realize is that more money isn’t necessarily the solution.”
Rep. Buys offered up his thoughts on education as well. “Just sending more money is not the entire answer to the problem, that’s why one of the things we are looking at is reforms. How do we spend our resources in a better fashion to affect the kids in a better manner? Voters passed charter schools, that’s just one way to offer reform.” At this point I noticed several members of the audience were wearing stickers promoting funding education.
The next question was from another teacher, taking Ericksen to task for the government spending chart. “As a math teacher I can tell you, this is a classic example of how you lie with statistics.” At this Ericksen’s smile faltered for a bit and they quickly moved on to the next question. Surprise, surprise, it was another teacher talking about how the “grade our schools” bill is flawed and not a good way to improve our educational system. Ericksen took the lead on the response this time, talking about unfunded mandates and the actual language of the McCleary decision. Buys agreed that mandates from Olympia are a bad idea.
Over the course of the next ninety minutes, almost all the questions had to do with education in some form or another. Mary Ann Armstrong, a former colleague of mine at the WWU Foundation, asked about plummeting state support for higher education. “We used to fund our university, but now the state only provides 30% of our funding.” Buys agreed it should be more of a 50/50 split, while Ericksen looked vaguely nauseous at the idea.
There were only a couple of questions that were not on education. One was from young Republican and homeschooled student, Krista Kirk, who just wanted to take the opportunity to thank the legislators for their service and ask if we are paying too much money for transportation projects. Conveniently, one of the charts the legislators had set up behind them was on just that subject! Bill Knutzen showed up to ask why Whatcom County was only getting pennies back on every dollar they contribute from the gas tax, and a rather passionate pair of senior citizens asked about a bill that would provide visitation rights for grandparents.
I did get a chance to ask a question as well. I didn’t want it to be an attack, but I wanted them to address an issue no one had mentioned so far. I asked, “I read recently that the bill requiring universal background checks died in the House last week. My question for you is, ‘Why is it easier to purchase a gun that can fire 600 rounds per minute than it is to get a marriage license? And what are you going to do about it?'” Applause broke out (with a few boos) and someone in the back shouted, “Because of the Second Amendment!” For a good ten seconds, Buys and Ericksen just stared at me before Ericksen responded. “Well that bill was . . . it was Frank Chopp who is the Speaker of the House, and he is from central Seattle and he killed the bill.” With that, they moved on to the next question without ever touching on my issue. I’ll just have to write them a letter. That will do the trick.
After the last couple of questions (education again), Ericksen brought the meeting to a close. As we walked out of the high school, Shane Roth leaned over to me, “I bet they were wishing they held this event in Lynden.” But I don’t know if that would have shielded our legislators from our upset educators. Right now, Lynden is struggling to fund many of their basic services, including their school district. The continued failure of government to support our education system is creating an unbearable strain on our teachers and it is no wonder they are frustrated with our unresponsive legislators from the 42nd. I hope this experience will motivate Buys and Ericksen to be more open to funding possibilities for our schools.