On Saturday, March 16, Senator Mark Mullet, Representative Lisa Callan and Representative Bill Ramos came to Maple Valley for a 5th District Legislators Town Hall meeting with constituents and area residents to discuss local issues of importance and answer questions.
Upon entering, attendees were asked to sign in and write any questions they have on notecards to be read aloud. Senator Mullet indicated that this method, rather than a “free for all”, is used to ensure all attendees have the opportunity to have their questions answered and prevent one or two individuals from monopolizing the conversation.
Mullet began by thanking attendees for coming and saying that he intends to answer each question honestly. Representative Callan agreed and reiterated the importance of hearing from each and every voice in the 5th Legislative District to effectively represent the residents, and to in turn connect those voices with the residents of all of Washington state. Representative Ramos said he and his other legislators are committed to getting things done and will bring their diverse backgrounds together to work as a team.
Questions were read out by Senator Mullet’s Legislative Assistant, Adam Day, who began without preamble.
The first question was regarding vaccinations.
Do you support any of the philosophical exemptions to vaccines?
“Adam, you’re supposed to start with softball questions!” Mullet exclaimed, amid gales of laughter from the audience.
“This is an emotional issue,” Mullet began. “This is the one that’s dominating our inbox.” He explained the different exemptions available in public schools and said that although some people are in favor of eliminating all exemptions, he feels this is going a little too far for the current legislative session. “My take has been I am supporting getting rid of the personal philosophical exemption to vaccines, and a lot of that does play into what happened in Vancouver,” referring to the recent measles outbreak in Clark county, in which 73 cases of the measles were confirmed.
Representative Callan agreed, saying “This is one of those areas for me, coming from a school background, and coming off of the school board, I know that we need to keep all of our families as safe as we can, so I do support removing the philosophical choice around that.” She also said that she thinks it’s important we also ensure all of our vaccines are safe to avoid adverse reactions in patients.
Representative Ramos said that he believes the three of them are aligned on this issue and also feels the philosophical exemption should be eliminated, and expects that once the House and Senate are aligned, a bill will be released, though he admitted that “Our government is designed to not move very quickly.”
The next question was regarding residential density:
Do you support state imposed density requirements for residential housing?
Sen. Mullet said that he has dealt with this issue with the Issaquah city council, and that some of the headaches lawmakers are running into are issues with Accessory Dwelling Units like mother-in-law apartments, where some cities require extra parking for families who want to add these dwellings to their homes, which they often cannot do, and thus are not permitted to add the unit. Mullet said he supports density requirements around transit hubs to get as many units as possible in the area, but also supports getting cities money to handle traffic from extra units.
Rep. Callan concurred with what Sen. Mullet said, and added that the most important thing to her was ensuring that cities are supported to ensure that we are getting residents living closer to their jobs and schools to allow them less transit time, gas money, etc.
Rep. Ramos said he differs from his counterparts in this area, and he wants the cities to have control over what they want to do regarding density requirements. He wants the state to encourage and help, but does not want to mandate.
The next question was:
What are your thoughts on the Enumclaw Recycling Center that is being proposed at the Southern end of our District?
Mullet said he is just starting to hear about this issue and doesn’t have a lot of information on it, but intends to learn more as time progresses. Callan and Ramos both said they also don’t have a lot of details but are listening to the conversations and encourage residents to contact them with any concerns.
The next question was regarding traffic:
Traffic remains a problem on I-90 and SR 18 & SR 169. Can you address traffic issues?
Mullet gave an update I-90: “The extra lanes on I-90 are going to break ground at the end of this year and will open next year. The interchange at Highway 18 at Snoqualmie is moving forward as quickly as it can; the project should be completed in 2023.” He also said they currently do not have funds available for the Raging River issue in this legislative session, and that their number one priority is the project on Highway 18. He said after that project, he intends to pivot to securing funds for Highway 169.
Ramos is on the House Transportation Committee, and indicated that the traffic issues on Highway 18 and I-90 are the most important issues to him in this legislative session, but that they are working to secure funding for future projects.
The next question was regarding education:
Schools need more support staff, nurses, counselors, etc. What is being done on that issue, and especially about suicide prevention?
Mullet passed to Callan for this question, citing it was one of her strengths due to her background in education. She said that McCleary has funded basic education, and that now is the transition period for funding overhaul. Schools currently have dollars coming in that are being used to negotiate teacher contracts and salaries, and they’re trying to combat an over-reliance on local funds to fund public schools. She said now is the time to see how the transition plays out and tweak as needed. She also said a levy cap was introduced, but that allocation funds for school staff is based on the school’s number of students. She doesn’t feel like that staffing number is adequate for our schools, and that each school district is responsible for coming up with the funds for extra staffing beyond those allocation funds, which is where the current challenge is. In the meantime, they are working on partnering with the communities and training education staff about suicide signals and signs. They are also working on regional safety centers for districts to utilize.
Ramos said he does not support raising local levy rates, citing the Tahoma School District’s issues with getting levies passed previously. He believes the states should pay for special education, because as of right now that is funded by local levies and he thinks it should be funded by the government.
The nest question was about taxes.
Do you support an income tax? Do you have any ways states can address an unfair tax system?
Mullet acknowledged voter’s fears that new taxes will not balance out with older taxes being eliminated.
Callan explained that there is a budget deficit, and that property taxes were responsible for funding a lot of things, which has been difficult for many, and that she would like legislators to focus on revenue neutral, less aggressive ways of addressing the issue.
Ramos said he believes the tax structure as it stands now is not equitable, but that there are tough discussions to be had in order to balance those issues, he also said that it is on their agenda for the next budget session.
The next question was regarding healthcare.
What is being done to address healthcare affordability? What are your thoughts on the universal healthcare bill and current drug prices?
Mullet touched on drug pricing and said he is currently working on getting more transparency on pharmaceutical prices, as the same drugs can differ in price from place to place.
Ramos said he doesn’t think a lot of energy will be focused on the universal healthcare bill, but that the focus is going to be on the individual healthcare market (those who aren’t insured by their employers or the state), as the plans for individuals are not affordable for most people.
Callan said the house is currently working on researching the best ways of getting healthcare costs under control.
The next question was open ended.
What is the most important issue that should be fixed immediately in our state, regardless of whether it can be fixed?
All three legislators agreed that the Highway 18 project was the most pressing concern for them.
The next question was regarding higher education.
What action is being taken to address college affordability?
Mullet said he supports expanding tuition assistance, getting counselors into colleges to allow students to have support if they have issues with completing their education, expanded apprenticeship and certificate programs, including programs that don’t just include a four year college degree.
“We want to get folks into good solid paying jobs that they can live and support and raise a family on.”
Ramos commended the state of Washington on lowering the cost of tuition and capping the yearly tuition increase to 2 percent.
Callan said there is currently a bill in the education committee on increasing workforce development and education with grant money to incentivize different opportunities. She also supports childcare assistance for those who need it to go to school.
The next question was:
What is the status of the bill that Cedar Grove Compost and Nuisance Lawsuit Bill?
Mullet: “The status of that bill is dead.” (This was followed by scattered applause and cheers.)
The issue stems from a bill introduced by Cedar Grove Composting to shield composting operations from lawsuits by residents bothered by the compost facilities, i.e. complaints regarding odors.
Ramos said it is still a challenge for the community to deal with those odors and that residents must come together with Cedar Grove to find a solution.
Mullet also said that there are currently mitigation funds available to Cedar Grove Composting to deal with the issues residents are having with their operations.
Callan agreed that the work is not done on this issue and that we need processes and agencies available to respond to quality of life issues outside of the courts.
The next question was regarding marijuana.
The level of pesticides are found to be pretty high in the current marijuana that is produced for the stores that are around. Do you guys support homegrown marijuana?
Callan began by saying that pesticides in general aren’t good, and that she knows there are a lot of questions surrounding the issue and is interested to learn more.
Mullet spoke about a marijuana bill currently in the Senate with a homegrown amendment that did not pass, but said that he voted yes on the voice vote and expects the amendment to be brought up again in the 2020 legislative session.
Ramos added that marijuana pesticides are not something that is currently regulated by the state but that it should be going forward.
The final question was regarding cost of living for Public employees, school employees and teachers retirement accounts.
Do you support COLAs for PERS and TRS?
(Cost of living adjustments for Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS), School Employees’ Retirement System (SERS) or Teachers’ Retirement System)
Ramos agreed and advocated for increasing COLAs each year if the budget allows.
Closing remarks were made by Maple Valley City Council members encouraging people to get in touch with them if they have any questions and thanking the candidates for coming.
Callan closed by saying, “Your voice matters to me in every way.” She continued by saying she is committed to returning calls and emails from each and every constituent who gets in touch with her on issues that are important to them.
Mullet apologized to those whose questions were not answered and said they would try to respond to each one via email within one week.
Ramos echoed Callan by thanking the attendees for coming and encouraging them to get in touch with him with the things they care about, good or bad.