PACIFIC COUNTY — How should the state allocate resources and funds in 2019?
Pacific County commissioners recently met with state legislators, commissioners from Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties, and leaders from the Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC). The leaders met for a joint meeting on Dec. 13 to go over WSAC’s legislative priorities for 2019, as well as problems the three counties face.
“We definitely have a lot of the same issues,” said Lisa Olson, Pacific County commissioner. “We have some more pressing issues among our counties.”
State Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview; State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen; and State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, were present for the meeting.
WSAC’s major priorities include fish passage barrier removal, public health services, opposing new unfunded mandates and funding trial court public defense.
Fish passage barrier removal
WSAC wants the state to provide “adequate funding” to remove fish barriers and provide “necessary tools” to meet a court-ordered mandate which requires state-owned culverts to be removed by 2030. The culverts block habitat for salmon and steelhead.
“If we’re going to go after fish barriers, let’s not do just Puget Sound,” said Frank Wolfe, Pacific County commissioner. Wolfe said all culverts need to be taken care of, because taking care of one affects all the others.
WSAC essentially wants a long-term commitment from the state that will remove priority fish barriers, not just barriers the state is required to take care of by the court.
“We’re not going to do this in two years,” Blake said. “This is a 30-year journey.”
Public health services
Washington State Association of Local Public Health Officials (WSALPHO) have six major focuses they’d like to see addressed in the 2019 legislative session.
These include modernization of records; raising the legal age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21; supporting local health officers; fiscal sustainability for counties; foundational public health services (FPHS); solid waste facilities; and water systems.
FPHS focuses include environmental public health, communicable disease prevention and control, and assessment. These are health sectors WSALPHO wants the Legislature to fund.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s recently released plan focused on mental health services is another focus for WSALPHO. The plan fails to address rural issues, said Chris Bischoff, Wahkiakum County Health and Human Services director.
Opposing new unfunded mandates
Unfunded mandates are statutes or regulations which require state or local governments to perform an action. However, no money is provided to ensure the action is completed.
WSAC’s objective is to oppose any legislation that will increase costs for local government and don’t include funding from the state.
Two bills are likely to go forward, said Juliana Roe, WSAC policy director. The bills focus on ballot drop boxes and Spokane County challenging the constitutionality of being required to elect five county commissioners.
Some other examples of unfunded mandates may include election requirements, court costs and public health services.
Because of unfunded mandates, counties have been diverting funds from road maintenance and reducing investments in infrastructure, leaving “critical” public safety positions unfilled, according to WSAC.
Funding public defense
WSAC is aiming to get “adequate funding” for trial court public defense. The state funds less than 4 percent of the service cost of providing defense attorneys, leaving counties to pay $153 million annually, according to WSAC.
WSAC’s plan is to propose two bills which would raise funding for defendants who are too poor to pay for a defense attorney. Funds would be raised by 10 percent until the state fully funds indigent defense, Roe said.
“Things are getting shifted to counties and money is being diverted from counties. It doesn’t matter what areas — it’s just everything,” Olson said. “At what point are the state agencies accountable to watch their dollars? The waste is just tremendous.”
Olson emphasized that Pacific County faces all the issues the other counties face but that the county is unique because is a natural resources county.
Walsh said he thinks the legislative session will be about money, not policy, so he’s unsure if good policy fixes will happen.
Takko agreed the focus will likely be money. He reminded everyone the state is still working on funding education so that’ll likely be a major focus of the session.
The 2019 legislative session begins Jan. 14 and is scheduled to end April 28.