Friday, January 2, 2009

It's that time again... legislative town hall meetings underway

The town meeting is one of those distinctly American traditions.

Without a doubt, public involvement must play a central role in government’s decision-making process. And that holds true whether you’re talking citizen participation in the tradition of Norman Rockwell’s famous Freedom of Speech painting or in the manner of modern-day political blogs so popular these days.

In fact, members of the House Democratic Caucus highlight public involvement in their regular community meetings. Legislators want to make sure their work in the state capital reflects what constituents in the real world are really thinking.

So if you want to share what's on your mind, here are some upcoming town hall meetings with legislators who would love to hear from you. Please do come. And be part of that public involvement thing that's so important.

  • Saturday, January 10 in Vancouver with Rep. Jim Moeller, Rep.-elect Jim Jacks and Sen. Craig Pridemore. 10 a.m. to noon in the 6th floor hearing room of the Clark County Public Service Center (1300 Franklin St, Vancouver).
  • Here's another meeting to note: Thursday, January 8 with Rep. Marko Liias, Rep. Mary Helen Roberts and Sen. Paull Shin. 6-8 p.m. at Mukilteo City Hall Council Chambers (11930 Cyrus Way, Mukilteo). Topic is about Paine Field.
  • Rep. Steve Conway will also be hosting two town halls. They are:
    Jan. 31, 2009 at
    Bates Technical College – South Campus Cafeteria (2201 South 78th Street, Tacoma, WA)
    10:00 am – Noon

    February 5, 2009 at Lakeview Elementary School Multi-Purpose Room (10501 47th Ave. SW Lakewood, WA)
    6:00 pm – 8:00 pm

Multiple choices but no good answer - either cut college budgets or raise tuition

Tuesday’s News Tribune featured a story by Joe Turner about potential tuition hikes at state colleges and universities. Joe reported that in light of the $5.7 billion revenue shortfall, Governor Gregoire and other lawmakers are trying to lessen the severity of cuts in the state’s higher education system by allowing colleges to raise tuition.

Tuition at the University of Washington and other state colleges could rise much higher than the 7 percent annual increases proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire...

The severity of the budget crisis suggests lawmakers might again turn to huge tuition hikes to offset deep cuts they otherwise would have to make to higher education...

Overall, Gregoire’s budget would cut $350 million from budgets of the six four-year universities and 34 community and technical colleges. That’s 13 percent of their collective budgets, which concerns key lawmakers.

Joe talked to a few of those “key” lawmakers (but mostly on the Senate side - where's the love for our House members?). So we tracked down two House members who will have a lot to say about this and asked a few questions of our own. Rep. Deb Wallace chairs the House Higher Education Committee and Rep. Kathy Haigh chairs the House Education Appropriations Committee. In their own words:

The Governor is proposing a 13% cut to four-year colleges and universities and 6% cut to two-year colleges. What was your initial reaction to seeing her budget?

Wallace: I was happily surprised that the cuts to higher education were not deeper in the Governor’s budget. Several years back I worked as the director of Planning and Development at CTRAN, the transit agency in Clark County, and we had to take a 22% cut after the passage of I-695. Cuts that deep carve out essential services. While I hate to see any cuts to Higher Education I think we can be more efficient in our spending to maintain college access.

Haigh: I was very please the governor did not take the 20% cut she originally posed as an option. We have a little more wiggle room in the higher education budget than originally thought. The 4-year and research institutions will bear a little greater brunt because they have the larger budgets and a little more flexibility.

The community and technical colleges have programs we will work very hard to save because their mission aligns with our goal of getting people trained and ready to move forward in career and the world of work as quickly as possible.

Are there specific programs or budget items that are particularly important to you?

Wallace: I am dedicating my time to helping more people gain the job skills they need to get a good job and build a career. I think it is critical to make changes in the way we offer higher education programs to make it more affordable and to help more students attend school. Businesses in Washington need and want to hire skilled employees in our state. I am also focused on making the higher education institutions more transparent and accountable for their results.

Haigh: I will remain committed to STEM (science, technical engineering and math). This is a national movement and it is gaining momentum. The need to offer courses that focus on health services, technical engineering and teacher prep are likely to be preserved, and the colleges will need to make the decisions about what courses must go for now. I do not want to make those decisions at the state government level.

Last biennium lawmakers approved more than $80 million in new financial aid funding and expanded enrollment in our state’s colleges by nearly 10,000 slots. How do you think our short-term budget challenges will shape or alter our state’s long-term plans for increasing access and affordability at our colleges and universities?

Wallace: My goal given our dire budget situation is to hold onto the student count the state currently provides and to make efficiencies by focusing on high demand career occupations where we know jobs are available. While I believe all education is valuable, the state has limited funding so we need to realign our investment priorities.

One example is in the area of teacher preparation. We currently fund several thousand students to gain their primary grade teaching certificates however we don’t necessarily have that many teaching positions open in our state. However, we are practically begging for graduates in middle and high school math and science teaching slots. Since the state pays approximately half the cost of education shouldn’t we prioritize how we spend our tax investment? It is critical that we focus on areas where we have career shortages with our limited funding. As you can imagine this is a controversial subject and it will require much debate.

Community college tuition will not increase more than already allowed in their budgets for the next year, and I believe that is about 5%. Offering more opportunity for scholarships and perhaps lower interest rate loans are more ways to help folks through the next few years. I believe we will renew the option of tuition setting authority for out-of-state students in the next four years, but I doubt we will give them authority to increase in-state tuition over the 7% now allowed.

Higher education is the foundation of a strong state economy. Community colleges have expanded access all across the state at good tuition rates that get people trained and educated in one of the most effective and efficient systems in the country. Allowing those institution to fail or reduce enrollment is the wrong direction for a struggling state economy. The bad news is this is going to be really hard. The good news is that most people understand and agree that we must preserve programs and expand opportunity for all students in Washington state.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy new year!

The members and staff of the House Democratic Caucus wish you and yours a happy, healthy and safe new year. Enjoy the festivities and fun (but not too much). We'll see you in 2009!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Well played, Sam

It's officially on.

Rep. Morris has his eye on becoming #1 energy-saving state

Sam Taylor at the Bellingham Herald's Politics Blog, who is a voracious devourer of legislative news apparently, beat us to our OWN posting regarding Rep. Jeff Morris' new bill proposals for the '09 session.

Morris, an energy policy expert by trade, led efforts in 2005 that resulted in adoption of new efficiency standards for many appliances and electrical equipment in Washington. That bill, HB 1062, was estimated to save Washington over 400 million gallons of water, 1.9 million therms of natural gas, and 136 million KW hours of electricity in the first year alone.

“Not only do these policies make sense from an energy conservation standpoint, they make sense economically,” says Morris. “For consumers and businesses of Washington state, those savings equal nearly half a billion dollars in energy savings.” Morris is referring to the estimated HALF A BILLION in savings for consumers and businesses by 2020, thanks to 1062.

As a result, our state has become a national leader in conservation efforts. In fact, for the past two years the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has ranked Washington sixth in the nation in energy-saving policy.

But we suppose chanting, "We're #6!" doesn't sound nearly as cool as "We're #1." So this year, Rep. Morris has his sights on rising even higher in the ACEEE rankings with House Bill 1004, expanding energy efficiency standards to several other appliances, from wine chillers to portable electric spas.

To learn more about the ACEEE and read the report on states’ rankings, or learn how you can save energy at home, visit their site here.

And read the full news release here.

And next time, Sam, we’ll make sure to post our blog-worthy news here before you can beat us to the punch…

Monday, December 29, 2008

Homeowner protection legislation on tap for 2009

The Olympian’s Brad Shannon provides a good overview of the issues around homeowner protection in this weekend’s paper. Rep. Brendan Williams has been one of the more visible players on this issue and has already dropped a bill. In Shannon's words:
Williams already has filed House Bill 1045, which follows a home-warranty approach championed in 2008 by retiring Rep. Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor. Lantz's bill was patterned after a warranty rule for condominium purchasers that lawmakers passed in 2005, which Williams is using as a selling point.
But Williams’ approach, which provides homeowners with four-year protections for most defects and 10 years for latent defects and water damage, is only one that lawmakers will be considering.

Rep. Larry Springer and a handful of other Democratic legislators are putting together legislation that will likely include ideas such as a new ombudsman at the Attorney General’s office or arbitration options for homeowners seeking compensation for damages valued less than $50,000. As Shannon reports:
Springer said his focus is specific.

"We're really talking about roofing, siding, doors and windows, framing, and foundations. We are not interested in granite countertops," he said.

"We're really interested in water penetration and structural soundness," Springer said.
Whatever your opinion on this, Shannon outlines many of the pros and cons of the various proposals that is helpful for the average homeowner trying to wrap their head around this issue.

Basic education community forum in Kenmore next Tuesday

State Rep. Ruth Kagi hopes a major community education forum slated for Tuesday evening, Jan. 6, will give local residents a head start in understanding and weighing in on key education-funding issues that lawmakers will face in 2009.

The forum is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the Community Meeting Room of the Northshore Public Utility District facility, which is located at 6830 NE 185th St. in Kenmore.

Kagi is co-sponsoring the forum with the Washington State PTA and League of Education Voters to give parents, teachers and others an inside view of the findings and recommendations of the Washington State Basic Education Funding Task Force.

“We need our local communities to have a strong voice in decisions that will shape the future of education here and throughout Washington, and this forum will help,” said Kagi.

State Rep. Ross Hunter will be at the forum to provide an inside look at the work and recommendations of the Basic Education Funding Task Force. Hunter is a key member of the Task Force who also chairs the House Finance Committee in the State Legislature.

Citizens attending the forum will also have an opportunity to hear the perspectives and ask questions of Scott Allen, the Vice President of the Washington State PTA, and George Scarola, the Legislative Policy Director for the League of Education Voters.

“This will truly be a community discussion on education, and not an event where people are just talked at,” Kagi said. “We will all be fielding questions and comments at the forum, and the public perspectives I hear will be invaluable as I prepare for the legislative session that starts on Jan. 12.”