PORT TOWNSEND — Both state representatives from the 24th Legislative District spent an hour with constituents Monday in Jefferson County and highlighted their efforts in higher education, behavioral health and affordable housing.
State Reps. Steve Tharinger, D-Port Townsend, and Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, spoke during the annual legislative recap luncheon hosted by the Chamber of Jefferson County at the Fort Worden Commons.
Their primary focus was on the state’s new free or reduced tuition program for individuals who make $50,000 per year or less. The Workforce Education Investment Act, ESSHB 2158, passed the House of Representatives 52-46 and the Senate 25-22, both on April 28.
It’s unique because of the way it’s funded.
“Industry came to us and said, ‘Tax us more,’ ” said Tharinger, the chair of the House Capital Budget committee. “Their [Business and Occupation] taxes will go up 30 percent to fund this.”
Chapman specifically referred to large employers such as Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook who supported the concept.
“In a district like ours, where the district is well under $50,000 per year, we know it’s for jobs training, certification training, skills training,” Chapman said. “This is going to allow those families to have a pathway, both individuals and young adults. It’s going to be a great opportunity.”
The representatives said the bill is making national headlines, including a story in The New York Times, and they suggested it could become the model for similar programs across the country.
“The demographics of our nation is such that we need to educate,” Chapman said. “One-third of our country is full-time workers, half the country doesn’t work at all and is on assistance from the government. Those are not good numbers at all.”
Chapman also cited the 24th Legislative District as being the oldest in the state.
“For every student who goes off to college and never comes back, that just exasperates things,” he said.
In other areas, Tharinger praised the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners on their efforts to scale down the Port Hadlock sewer project. The more modular approach will allow for staging for the next phase of development, and it justified the state contributing $1.4 million toward the plans, he said.
Tharinger also talked about being able to partner with Fort Worden both through the state parks budget and through the Public Development Authority, which is working on infrastructure upgrades through sewer and water.
Another major area of concern is behavioral health — a combination of mental health and substance-abuse issues — and how the state is working to address them, Tharinger said.
As the state looks to build a new mental health facility to replace Western State Hospital in Lakewood, Tharinger said legislators are investing $180 million to address needs in different communities.
“It’s the first time the state has had a vision of how to proceed with the behavioral health issue,” he said. “That’s all good news. The bad news is, it’s going to take probably three to five years before we start to see results.”
One example is the proposed medication-assisted treatment facility in Sequim, where patients will be able to seek treatment for drug addiction.
The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Olympic Medical Center and Jefferson Healthcare applied for and received $7.2 million for phase one from the state’s capital budget, and tribal officials plan to seek the remainder of the facility’s funding in the 2020 legislative session.
Chapman denounced critics, saying “fear works in politics,” and the same groups who are painting a bad picture of the program are the ones who didn’t think the needle-exchange programs would work.
“What we really need is pragmatic solutions to some of these problems,” Tharinger said. “I think in the end, you will see fewer people out on the street and less crime.”
On affordable housing, several cities and counties, including Jefferson, are considering a small percentage of the state’s sales tax allotment to make investments, Tharinger said.
“It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a start, and it gives local governments an option they didn’t have before.”
Jefferson County Managing Editor Brian McLean can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 6, or at [email protected].