FORKS — North Olympic Peninsula lawmakers reflected on the highlights of the 60-day state legislative session at a town hall in Forks.
State Sen. Kevin Van De Wege and Reps. Steve Tharinger and Mike Chapman described Thursday a productive session that finished on schedule — March 9 — for the first time since 2014.
The 24th District Democrats were part of a new majority that controlled both chambers for the first time in five years.
The supplemental budget provides $776 million for teacher salaries, which lawmakers hope to be the final step in satisfying the basic education funding requirements of the McCleary decision, a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling.
The budget also provides a statewide property tax cut in 2019 and has a record $2.4 billion reserve.
The 24th District delegation focused on West End issues in a 90-minute forum at the Rainforest Arts Center in Forks.
The district covers Clallam, Jefferson and parts of Grays Harbor County.
Van De Wege, D-Sequim, chairs the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee, which has purview over timber, fishing and the state Department of Natural Resources.
DNR manages timber sales on 93,331 acres of state trust lands in Clallam County alone, mainly on the West End.
“We passed legislation that makes sure DNR has to stick to their fiduciary responsibility as far as state trust lands go,” Van De Wege said.
“That’s a big deal in that DNR has to be sure that making money for the trust is their No. 1 priority. That was essentially already law, but we really strengthened it and clarified that that is their No. 1 thing.”
Chapman, D-Port Angeles, introduced a bill that will ensure “no net loss of jobs” as DNR develops a long-term conservation strategy for the marbled murrelet, a small seabird that nests in coastal forests.
Tharinger, D-Sequim, said the capital budget includes funding for the Olympic Natural Resource Center in Forks to design cross laminated timber, or CLT, projects.
“We’re hoping to develop more production statewide around CLT, and I think that’s a pretty exciting opportunity to add value to the fiber and timber coming off the landscape,” said Tharinger, who chairs the House Capital Budget Committee.
The state Legislature voted to phase out marine farming of Atlantic salmon and other nonnative fish by 2022 in a move prompted by the escape of thousands of Atlantic salmon from Cooke Aquaculture’s net pens at Cypress Island last August.
Cooke’s leases have been terminated at Port Angeles and other locations because of violations revealed in inspections by DNR.
Van De Wege said the Legislature invested more than $700,000 to enhance fish hatcheries.
“I’m passionate about hatchery production,” Van De Wege said.
”The more we can produce out of our hatcheries, the more salmon that are going to be available for tribal and commercial and sports fishermen to use, for people to come out here and spend money and fish in Forks.”
The Legislature also pushed Gov. Jay Inslee to take action on “problematic” seals and sea lions, which feed on salmon, Van De Wege said.
Federal law allows states to manage seal and sea lion populations once they have rebounded.
“Those populations definitely have rebounded in Washington state,” Van De Wege said.
“Puget Sound, the Pacific Coast and Columbia River have a huge population of seals and sea lions.
“Hopefully soon, the state will be managing them.”
Chapman, who helped secure $30 million for a new U.S. Highway 101 bridge over the Elwha River in his first session last year, said the state is moving “full steam ahead” on the project.
The 91-year-old bridge is being undercut by the now-free-flowing Elwha River.
A new bridge will be constructed near the existing span, and the hairpin corner on the east side of the river will be eliminated.
“We are hoping that by about this time next year, it should be going out to bid,” said Chapman, who serves on the House Transportation Committee.
In the recent session, Chapman and his colleagues secured $650,000 for a new turn lane at U.S. Highway 101 and Lower Hoh Road, the entrance to the Hoh reservation in west Jefferson County.
“If you’re out west here and you try to make that turn into the Hoh, it can be a little tricky,” Chapman said.
”So we’re going to have a brand new turn lane to make that transition and that intersection a little smoother.”
Chapman also secured a $350,000 budget proviso to help the city of Port Angeles pay for suicide barriers on the Eighth Street bridges.
Eight people have jumped to their deaths from the 100-foot-tall bridges since they were rebuilt with 4-foot-6 inch railings in 2009.
“There were only I think 11 new funded projects in the supplemental (budget), so we did really well with budget provisos,” Chapman said.
Chapman also introduced legislation that funds scholarships at community colleges to support rural jobs in a public-private partnership.
“Derek Kilmer always says we don’t want out best export to be our kids,” Chapman said of the Democratic Congressman who represents the 6th District, which includes the Peninsula.
”We know there are jobs that are going unfilled right now in our communities, so let’s train our next generation workforce. I was actually really honored to have that bill passed and have it signed this morning.”
Tharinger, who serves on the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, focused on health care in his summary of the session.
The Legislature approved a 25-percent increase in Medicaid reimbursement for Olympic Medical Center in Port Anglees and Grays Harbor Community Hospital in Aberdeen, sole community hospitals that are too large to capture full reimbursement rates enjoyed by critical access centers like Forks Community Hospital and Jefferson Healthcare in Port Townsend.
“That’s really important for Grays Harbor because they’re close to closing down there, and without these dollars they would be faced with some real challenges and we’d lose that hospitals in the southern part of our district,” Tharinger said.
“It also applies to Olympic Medical Center, which was challenged with their rates.”
OMC, which is paid about 60 percent of cost for Medicaid, lost $$2.5 million in 2017, CEO Eric Lewis said in a recent interview.
“These dollars are just through the biennium,” Tharinger said.
“So we’ve also, with the proviso, set up a plan to look at rural health care and look at it in a more global way, and look at it almost in a way so that if you are incentivizing wellness you will be able to keep those dollars in your system.”
The 24th District delegation had met with Quileute Tribal School District officials before the town hall in Forks and planned to hold a second forum Thursday in Ocean Shores.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].