More than 3,100 Tri-Cities residents join legislators for community conversation
The first question asked during Thursday night’s 8th Legislative District telephone town hall came from a Kennewick resident named John, who wanted to know how Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to increase “green” fuel standards would impact the local economy. That was an easy one for Sen. Sharon Brown, who was joined by state Reps. Larry Haler and Brad Klippert for the live “community conversation” Thursday night.
“A substantial portion of our regional – and state – economy is highly dependent on agriculture and the ability to move agricultural goods across the state to our ports,” replied Brown, R-Kennewick and a member of the Senate Agriculture Water and Rural Economic Development Committee. “Increasing fuel costs in these already difficult economic times isn’t good for farmers, families or employers, and it definitely isn’t good for the overall economy of the Tri-Cities.”
John’s question set the tone for the night, as Brown and her legislative colleagues fielded a number of pointed and insightful inquiries from 8th District residents. More than 3,100 people listened in at some point during the hour-long forum, which used conference-call technology to connect Brown and her fellow lawmakers with their constituents during the first week of the 2014 legislative session. As many as 620 participants were actively listening at one point in the conversation, and more than 50 had questions for their legislators. More than 250 people answered one or more of the three instant-poll questions that were asked.
Participants asked questions on topics ranging from the economy to education to labeling requirements for genetically modified foods.
“This was a great opportunity to find out exactly what issues are most on the minds of the people we represent back home,” said Brown. “The questions were excellent and the comments highlighted for me that most folks are concerned about keeping their taxes low, government in check and creating an environment where employers can flourish and create more jobs for Washingtonians.”
One topic that kept coming up was how to reduce energy costs, with many callers specifically pointing to hydropower and asking will it ever be considered an eligible resource under the state’s renewable-energy law.
“Most people agree that it is a good idea to conserve energy by using more of our renewable resources,” Brown said. “But Initiative 937 in 2006 failed to consider hydro as the clean, abundant and affordable power source it truly is; Washington electricity users and providers have paid the price. Local utilities must sell their low-cost hydropower to other states that do recognize it as a renewable energy, while purchasing more costly power from out of state. This hurts all Washingtonians, but is particularly painful for the poor, who tend to pay a greater percentage of their income towards energy costs.”
When asked how she would make progress towards the goal of making hydropower an eligible renewable resource, Brown pointed to Senate Bill 6058, her measure to help ratepayers deal with some of the unintended economic hardships caused by provisions of the I-937 renewable-energy requirement.
“This bill will help make up for some of the damage felt by families and employers struggling to survive in this economy,” Brown said, “by allowing some incremental electricity produced by efficiency improvements to hydro projects to qualify as an eligible renewable resource.
“It’s a win-win; We not only save consumers money, but we also help our employers free up the resources they need to hire more employees and give raises and better benefits to those already employed.”
In addition to answering questions from constituents, Brown and her legislative colleagues asked a few questions of their own. The telephone town-hall technology they used allows callers to participate in a number of instant polls, giving the trio additional insights into the pulse of their district.
When asked if they would support a 10.5-cent increase in the state gas tax to pay for transportation improvements, the verdict was decisive and clear. Only 7 percent of area residents answering the question answered “yes.” The overwhelming majority, a full 93 percent, said “no” to a hike in the gas tax.
This came as no surprise to Brown.
“Increasing gas taxes while the economy is struggling to recover is not going to be popular with the folks I represent,” said Brown. “Every dollar a mom or dad has to put into fueling up reduces what they have to put food on the table and pay the mortgage. It also increases the cost to our businesses, making the goods and services they provide that more expensive. And given all of the waste, mismanagement and failure to complete projects on time that we have seen from the Department of Transportation, people have lost faith that they will see a good return on the dollars they send over to DOT.”
Brown and her colleagues hosted the telephone town hall from the Capitol, where the 60-day legislative session is in its first week and bills are continuing to be introduced.
“The timing of last night’s town hall couldn’t have been better,” Brown said. “I am over in Olympia to be the voice of the men, women and families of the Eighth District, and to do that effectively I need to hear directly from them as much as possible.
“This technology gives us another way for legislators to stay in contact with the people we represent, even when we are 250 miles away from home. In less time than it would take for me to reach Snoqualmie Pass from Olympia, I was able to meet with more people than I could have reached in a full week of traditional town-hall meetings. I’m grateful to everyone who took time out of their busy schedules to share their opinions and concerns about their government.”